If astrophysics is a holy calling, Philip Glass' opera Kepler is its liturgy. In director Sam Helfrich's Spoleto Festival production of the biographical work about the 16th- and 17th-century mathematician-astronomer Johannes Kepler, the big questions about reconciliation between religious faith and modern science get asked — but hardly answered. And while Christian scriptures are used in the opera as an ideological bludgeon, there are moments of worship to be heard as well.
"I wanted to be a theologian," lead baritone John Hancock sings in Latin near the start of the opera in his role as the title character, the only named entity on stage. "Behold, God is also celebrated through my works in astronomy." But Kepler's mind is far from settled, as revealed by the remainder of the production, a plotless journey through the inner workings of a soul in turmoil. And although the historical Kepler did not face the same level of persecution from the church as his contemporary Galileo Galilei, he also believed the earth revolved around the sun, and it cost him his peace of mind. The libretto of the opera is largely drawn from Kepler's notebooks, interspersed with the creation story from the book of Genesis and lines from the poet Andreas Gryphius, another contemporary of Kepler's.
The music, carried out with precision and grace by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra under conductor John Kennedy, is vintage Glass, with meditative repetitions that build to thundering climaxes, only to quickly die back down and slowly expand again. When the exceedingly tall Hancock hunches over to peer into a brass telescope, the music conveys a sense of prostrate wonder, accentuated at times by a young boy who appears on stage with his mother and looks skyward through his own tiny telescope.
Hancock displays a deep comprehension of the libretto, imbuing it with emotional weight even when he is singing about the steps of a scientific investigation. In singing a passage from Kepler's notebook on a failed geometric theory about the orbits of the planets, he ably conveys the heartbreak of discovering that a hypothesis long in the making must be dismantled because of new data. He even elicits a few chuckles while running down Kepler's list of alienated ex-friends and how he turned them away.
Hancock is joined by six robed scholars (soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, soprano Leah Wool, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Krasovec, tenor Gregory Schmidt, baritone Dan Kempson, and bass Matt Boehler) and the Westminster Choir, who alternately take on the roles of university students, church congregants, and dueling theologians and scholars. The battle lines are clearly drawn when the choir members assemble into two camps around a Bible and a textbook, staring each other down as a representative from each group takes off his jacket and steps out for a brawl. Hancock's tone is mournful after he watches the violence.
There are no witch trials or inquisition courts in Kepler, only a man wracked with insecurity and isolated from the church. Kepler makes the argument that the Bible is a book about God, not about physics, and we know that in real life his own Lutheran church denied him the rite of communion because of his theological stances. The bloody political-religious background of the Thirty Years' War is never mentioned directly in the opera, although it might be suggested by the opening cadence of a military snare. The mood throughout is dark and tense with a sense of the divine, not unlike Glass' 1982 film score for Koyaanisqatsi.
The feeling of wonder is aided by an exquisite set from designer Andrew Lieberman and lighting from Aaron Black. A screen dominates the back of the stage, beginning the show with a warm white neon bar that crawls almost imperceptibly from bottom to the top, a strange thing of beauty that splits the difference between a computer scanner and a sunrise. At stage left, a tall, narrow wall of wood splits silently apart to let clean white light come through in the shape of a cross.
That white light makes another, unexpected appearance when the choir files onto the stage in fearsome chainmail head coverings, accusing Kepler and the scholars of some unspecified heresy. As the choir takes up the Latin chant "Vanity! Vanity of vanities," a trapdoor opens in the stage, and the choir directs Kepler and the scholars to walk into it. But the light that comes out is no hellish flame. It is pure white, casting shadows on the ceiling of the Sottile Theatre.
Spoleto Festival USA. Kepler. May 28 and 31, June 2 at 8 p.m. $25-95. Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. (843) 579-3100