The headline “Pope Francis Allows Priests to Bless Same Sex Couples” may have taken the world by surprise this week but it is unlikely to have the same impact as Galileo’s proposition that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, but a planet revolving around our sun. Will the Roman Catholic Church crumble in the face of what many might see as being contrary to conservative doctrine? It remains to be seen how much flack Pope Francis’ liberal attitudes might attract, but Richard Mills’ opera, Galileo, explores questions regarding the intersection of politics, religion and science that remain relevant.
Brilliant Renaissance men – and it is almost exclusively men – fighting against ignorance and the entrenched power structures of religious orthodoxy continue to fascinate us, inspiring playwrights and composers from Brecht to Queen and now Mills. Their struggles continue to resonate. Earlier this year, Lyric Opera mounted Mary Finsterer’s Biographica – a compelling dramatisation of the life of Italian polymath Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576) and his relationships with his wife and three children, and his arrest by the Inquisition in 1570 for heresy. While, apparently, a much less noble character than Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), their lives had much in common. For keen Melbourne opera lovers, it has been intriguing to contemplate the different approaches taken by Mills and his librettist, Malcolm Angelucci, and Finsterer and her librettist, Tom Wright.
Whereas Finsterer has written a chamber opera, Mills has opted for a much larger canvas – grand opera on an almost epic scale. Another crucial point of difference was having an actor play the main character in Biographica, whereas Galileo is sung throughout its two hour twenty minute duration. Finsterer makes use of Latin for key choral passages, but the rest is in English, while Mills has used Italian throughout. And it is this choice that can make Galileo less immediately relatable for many audience members.
Those who had taken the trouble to read not only the program notes but also the online Education Resource material would have been fully aware of why this choice was made – referencing Dante and his use of poetic metre, commedia dell’arte and late sixteenth and early seventeenth century opera – but an audience did have to work hard to absorb and appreciate all the complexities, particularly in what was an almost overwhelmingly busy Act 1 of seven episodes with what seemed a host of characters in various combinations. After interval, there was a noticeable number of empty seats in what had previously been a full house. The singing was great, the orchestra was fabulous, but for some people, it was all a bit too much – a great pity because Act 2 was, on the whole and despite the tremendous Act 1 finale, significantly more engaging.
There was much to admire in Act 1. Herbie Cox did a fine job as the young Galileo, amplification giving his boy soprano a considerable boost to the point where the adult singers might have sounded relatively pale. With Christopher Hillier singing the role of Galileo’s father Vincenzio, there was no fear of that. His smooth, focussed tone and dramatically strong delivery ensured that everything Hillier sang had impact. The fact that he never looked at the score he carried also helped.
Dimity Shepherd’s performance as Galileo’s wife Marina was possibly the highlight of Act 1. Marina’s sensuous aubade to the sun and the couple’s initial encounter were tender moments sung expressively by Shepherd and Samuel Dundas as they discovered each other – he via his telescope. Her portrayal of Marina’s later outrage as the deserted wife was sung with great passion. It was obvious that Mills’ knowledge of Shepherd’s strengths informed his musical language, giving her an opportunity to display her outstanding vocal and dramatic virtuosity.
Act 2 saw more extended passages of lyricism and arias. There was some very lovely singing by Emma Pearson, particularly in the role of Galileo’s daughter, Sister Marie Celeste, the sensitive warmth of her floating soprano contrasting with her portrayal of the aggressive Cristina di Medici two scenes earlier. Such sweet moments were welcome oases from cacophonous chaos, snarling brass and the shrieking whistle that announced the Devils.
The series of vignettes from Galileo’s life culminated in the clash with Papal authority in Act 2. More extended arias directed sharper attention on specific characterisations. Shanul Sharma’s portrayal of Pope Urban VIII was riveting in as Galileo encountered the full might of the Vatican’s powers of “persuasion”. Renowned for his vocal agility and the security of the upper reaches of his tenor range, he used an unwavering command of his vocal resources to reinforce the intensity of his characterisation in an extended aria of denunciation. He was an inexorable force that demanded obedience.
One of the most electrifying moments in the opera was Stacey Alleaume’s performance as the Plague Soprano – a force for chaos. Singing from a balcony next to the stage, she produced a torrent of sound and fury that encompassed the most exacting coloratura passages. Again, this was a vocal role designed by Mills to exploit her singular vocal gifts.
So, what were Samuel Dundas’ qualities that might have made him suitable for the title role? Apart from his technical and musical abilities, Dundas possesses a beautiful baritone voice and the ability to create a sympathetic persona. Galileo does not choose the path to heroic martyrdom – he is not a saint. He is a man who is sufficiently pragmatic and fearful that he is willing to recant and say that what he knows to be true is not true. Mills and Dundas created a figure of pathos to whom we can relate only too readily – not quite “a broken man”, but one who has surrendered to implacable forces and seeks grace and forgiveness.
In many respects, Galileo reflected a personal expression of Mills’ passions and his leadership of Victorian Opera as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor for over ten years. So many of the singers who had been nurtured by him during this time gave strong performances in a variety of roles: Michael Lampard, Stephen Marsh, Paul Biencourt, Daniel Szesiong, Michael Petruccelli, Simon Meadows and Joshua Morton Galea, plus the two quintets of Devils and Angels with Raphael Wong as chief Devil, who has the last cynical laugh, and members of a well-disciplined Chorus in splendid voice. It was like a roll call (role call?) of some of Melbourne’s most notable operatic talent.
This world premiere might not have been the fully staged production originally intended, but neither was it simply a concert version with the singers crammed together in front of the orchestra. Orchestra Victoria was in the pit, with members of the splendid Renaissance ensemble La Compañia lined up at the front of one side of the stage, along with an elevated harp that played a prominent role in many scenes. The sight of the Renaissance instruments was a major element in creating a feeling for the historical context and meant that the cornettos associated with much of Galileo’s music were more clearly audible.
A series of rises separating various groupings and soloists functioned most effectively. Although a director was not specified in the program notes, the stage movement appeared to go remarkably smoothly even when the action was at its most hectic. Costumes were basic – mainly dark suits for the men and basic black for female members of the chorus. Small details such a red tops under the jackets for the five Devils and white for the five Angels, and iPads for the Scientists, as opposed to paper scores for others, provided appropriate distinctions. Female principals were dressed in keeping with their roles – particularly useful if they were singing more than one role.
Appropriate lighting also made an important contribution to the theatrical dimension. Spotlights and cyclorama floods behind the semi reflective panels at the back of the stage heightened mood and signaled function, such as the vivid red for the Devils. The unexpected green illumination of the Palais Theatre’s interior dome as the Plague raged was particularly striking.
It is regrettable that Galileo is being performed only once this season; it is a complex and powerful work that deserves closer examination than one hearing can offer. Fortunately, it will be available for one week for those who have subscribed to the Australian Digital Concert Hall video of this performance. We may not have the full orchestral glory of Orchestra Victoria in those thrilling climaxes as Devils, Angels, citizens and principal players come together in what the progam note justly calls “sonic splendour”, but a wealth of sonic and dramatic detail can be more fully appreciated.
Photo credit: Classic Melbourne
Heather Leviston reviewed “Galileo”, presented by Victorian Opera at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda on December 20, 2023.