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Review by Harriet McLeod
Thanks, Philip Glass, for your unending curiosity. Kepler, which made its American stage premiere Saturday night at Sottile Theatre, is among Glass’ musical explorations of radical thinkers: Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo. This portrait, sung in English and Latin, is an interior one. Johannes Kepler, sung by baritone John Hancock, is surrounded by a large Greek chorus of his thoughts and six scholars. Don't look for a plot. The chorus and the scholars move in and out, sometimes with suitcases, to provide point and counterpoint to the struggles of his late 16th- and early 17th-century life.
Kepler, the German-born astronomer and mathematician, formulated the laws of planetary motion and was the first to explain how a telescope works and the first to say that ocean tides are caused by the moon. His scientific struggle against prevailing views in religion, astrology, and metaphysics, all of which he dabbled in, are at the center of the opera. Kepler worked against the obligatory view of the 16th century—that the unchanging universe was divinely guided, with Earth at its center. Kepler admired the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, who knew better. The war between science and religion gets bloody after intermission, with the libretto telling us the Bible “is not a book of knowledge.”
From its galloping overture to its dramatic second act, the music moves with lush choral harmonies and orchestration that has insistent string runs and a full range of percussion. Depending on whether you like Philip Glass's signature repetitive phrasing, the music is hypnotic and enthralling, or nap-inducing. The opera is 2 1/2 hours with intermission. The standing ovation on Saturday night came for conductor John Kennedy and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
The musical gorgeousness was tamped down by a stark, dark, and grim academic set with a curved screen stage-rear that changes colors from black to gray to white or blood red. Costumes are English boarding school, circa 20th century, with men in black suits and women in gray plaid skirts and gray ankle socks. Maybe the depressing view isn't just about the 16th-century rejection of science but the current one.
Performances continue Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, June 2, all at 8 p.m.