‘Kepler’ dynamic if not fully realized

Kepler sleeps as his mother and a younger Kepler look on. (Aasimah Navlakhi/postandcourier.com)

Review BY YIORGOS VASSILANDONAKIS

Special to The Post and Courier

Over the years, Spoleto has nurtured a long association with Philip Glass, which included the 1990 world premiere of his “Hydrogen Jukebox” (a collaboration with Allen Ginsberg), among other works of his, and he even became the face of Spoleto in 2007, when the festival poster was a Glass portrait by Chuck Close.

So it was fitting to honor the composer’s 75th birthday with a new production — a new opera.

Johannes Kepler, the 17th century mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, is a pretty interesting character to set to music: brilliant, prolific, torn between science and religion, and alive during a most interesting period.

The libretto by Martina Winkel comprises fragments of Kepler’s writings and sayings, contrasted with snippets from baroque poet Andres Gryphus’ verses, which paint a vivid picture of the European climate during the Thirty Years War.

Glass brings to his “Kepler” the experience of having written 23 operas, most of them character based. There were no stylistic surprises in the score: pulsed triadic arpeggiated chords, syncopated rhythms, mediant-related harmonies.

Glass’ orchestration was a little more adventurous than usual, brassier, with a richer low end, often beefed up by a contrabass clarinet and a few more percussive elements than usual.

The Spoleto Festival Orchestra was accurate, resonant and dynamic under the baton of John Kennedy, who went to great lengths to bring out details and create interesting moments.

Equally wonderful was the singing — it is an opera, after all. John Hancock, who played Kepler, is a rising baritone star we should watch. He possesses a full-bodied, agile and extremely accurate voice, with musicianship, expression and stage presence to match. He had a few truly stunning moments.

Kepler’s character was framed by a sextet of singers who acted as a modular chamber choir, at times as a sort of alter ego to the main character, at other times his scientific team. This was one of the most interesting aspects of the opera.

The material written for the chamber singers was quite virtuosic, yet delivered flawlessly, and they stole the show a few times, most notably in the opening of Act 2.

The ever-stunning Westminster choristers completed the vocal lineup and gave a world-class performance, despite the rather uneventful choral writing, which was almost exclusively homophonic, pompous at times, and strongly reminiscent of “Carmina Burana,” especially in the processional sections.

The choir also played modular character, and shined brightest when portraying schoolchildren, adding a interesting dimension to the cast.

The moment of truth in any opera is when all the elements are put together. Director Sam Helfrich went to great lengths to make “Kepler” stage-worthy. He researched the character, and expanded greatly on it, by creating multiple layers of stage activity to reflect Kepler’s conflicts and sides.

The two singing groups take on different roles, from knights to academics dressed in full regalia, an element that provides some stage action.

It does not, however, save this work as an operatic piece. Where Kepler falls short as an opera is the overall structure of the score, which plays more like a play list of Philip Glass greatest hits than a dramatic work, lacking in overall shape, structure and contrast.

One would expect the composer to go a little further in developing this extremely interesting character. He would have done well treating it like one of his successful film scores. Instead, he does little with his music to serve the drama. And opera is most of all drama, even when it’s unconventionally structured drama.

The first act especially runs too long, and doesn’t accomplish what is sets out to do. The text is repeated over and over — some lines as many as 10 times — which instead of strengthening its power, diminishes it. The second act is much better paced and more emotionally true and effective. Pacing is probably the hardest thing for a composer to get right.

A premiere is always a risk, and an opera premiere even more so, considering the production scope. Taking on such risks is in our time quite rare. Spoleto is brave in doing so, and the audience does very well to support and attend these premieres, because even when they’re not perfect, it’s always an exciting and rewarding experience.