Philip Glass’ Kepler is another of his “portrait operas,” this one of the seventeenth-century German mathematician and astronomer who developed the laws of planetary motion, which became the foundation, ultimately, of Newton’s theory of gravitation. It’s no mistake that the opera is set in the period of the Thirty Years’ War, — not only was that when Kepler lived, but it marked a transition point in the history of Western thought. Martina Winkel’s libretto, in German and Latin, contrasts Kepler’s words as he wrestles with the concepts he is developing with the words of one of his contemporaries, Andreas Gryphius, on the plight of Europe during the war.
The opera is actually more of an oratorio. There is one soloist, baritone Martin Achrainer, who sings the role of Kepler, juxtaposed against a six-member “chorus” who not only sing in unison, commenting on the story almost on the order of the chorus from Greek drama, but also take on various roles in the story, all backed up by a full orchestra and chorus.
Like all of Glass’ biography operas, Kepler is much more concerned with Kepler’s thought than with the circumstances of his life. (They are, after all, focused on those who changed the way we look at the universe.) Consequently, there’s a lot of psychology here, not only in the libretto, but in the score as well. On first listening, I wasn’t terribly impressed — there are none of the massed choruses or intricate duets and trios of, for example, Satyagraha or Akhnaten, but after it had ceased to be background music and become an object of attention in its own right, I realized that there is a great deal of intensity here, often quietly manifested, but very real nonetheless. In that regard, Achrainer’s performance, which, let me note, is assured and authoritative, develops a kind of synergy with the orchestra that is remarkable. Add in the choral passages, and you’ve got a package that may be understated but has undeniable moments of sheer power.
Kepler premiered in 2009, and is what I’ve taken to calling “late” Glass, although it’s not really “late” so much as “current.” At any rate, the music continues its path toward more fluidity, less rigidity. It’s much less percussive than works from the 1980s, or even some from the ’90s, and much more melodic, although Glass’ characteristic orchestral figures are definitely present. While it lacks the momentum of earlier operas, it makes up for it in a more ruminative quality, a more contemplative tone.
(OMM/Landestheater Linz, 2010) Personnel: Martin Achrainer, baritone: Kepler; Cassandra McConnell, soprano 1; Karen Robertson, soprano 2; Katerina Hebelkova, mezzo; Pedro Velázquez Diaz, tenor; Sheho Chang, baritone; Florian Spiess, baritone; Orchestra and Chorus of the the Landestheater Linz, Georg Leopold, chorusmaster; Dennis Russell Davies, cond.