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I sense, on the American opera scene, a ho-hum attitude to Glass, based on the assumption that he always does the same thing. Most important companies have by now done one or maybe two (though, L.A., none) of his operas. The older works are favored over the new. Nothing is planned anywhere in the U.S. at the moment. Critics don t go out of their way to keep up. Europe pays more attention. Linz is a town of 200,000, and its performances of Kepler (which runs through early January) serve as a tourist attraction and sell out. Linz knows what we do not that Glass, following Kepler's lead, understands that there really may be a music of the spheres. Kepler is a wise, major opera. -- Mark Swed --Los Angeles Times 11-19-2009
And there is no sense that Mr. Glass has a problem with this or thinks that we in the 21st century have some better handle on the truth of the matter. There s something refreshing about the composer s willingness to depict a belief in God as meaningful and not a belief that s potentially hip like Taoism or Buddhism, but good, old-fashioned Lutheranism. Something that does not get said about Mr. Glass enough, but that may in the end be one of the real distinctions between him and other composers popular with a contemporary, liberal audience, is that he always gives religious belief its due, without condescension. It is one of the many pleasures of his surprisingly moving new opera, which will hopefully return to New York soon, perhaps alongside Galileo. -Zachary Woolfe --New York Observer 11-24-2010
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Kepler was a deeply religious man, and spent his life attempting to discover the laws governing the order behind the movements of the planets. He ventured down some blind alleys along the way, and this opera explores them all.
In the very first scene, we see the body of Johannes Kepler, surrounded by the six planets known at his time, orbiting in perfect circles, bathed in that reddish light used by astronomers to avoid upsetting night vision. (For the non-astronomers amongst you, that would be the five visible planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - plus Earth). The planets are portrayed by six singers, wearing white clothing. The rest of the action is, presumably, a flashback.
As the action progresses, we see Kepler trying to explain the six-fold symmetry of the solar system in terms of the shapes of geometrical solids, plus the combination of "numbers, quantities and circular motion" as sung by the chorus. This reflects his early work, where he couldn't abandon the idea that planets should move in a perfect circle.
The chorus, dressed in black and looking ever upward, represents Religion (I think) looking towards the heavens for divine inspiration, while Kepler looks at the skies for knowledge. In answer to their refusal to listen to his findings ("when we close our eyes, we see more"), Kepler retorts "the Bible is not a textbook on Optics".
At one point, Kepler brings in the Sun (on a chain as it happens) to symbolize the transition from geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system. This thoroughly upsets the chorus, who wrap themselves in those mylar sheets commonly referred-to as 'space blanket'. Rather a nice touch, I thought: they may not like science, but they have no qualms about using its products.
Throughout the first act, the stage revolves gently clockwise, carrying the six planets around with it. When the chorus decide to move, they travel anti-clockwise, giving a net velocity of zero. A stately procession strides ponderously across the stage, making not a whit of progress.
In Kepler's day, astrology and astronomy were combined, and Kepler wasn't above drawing up horoscopes. At one point, Kepler discusses astrology with the planets, who are puzzled that something which clearly doesn't work should be important. Kepler shrugs and replies that its importance lies in the fact that people believe it.
Towards the end, Kepler finally realizes that the key to his understanding of the solar system comes from accepting that the planets travel in ellipses - the basis of his three laws of planetary motion. This is too much for the chorus: the world collapses in strife. Kepler, by now, is nearing the end of his life.
At the end, we leave the body of Kepler, surrounded by the Chorus, still looking upward, and singing Kepler's epitaph (which he wrote himself).
Mensus eram coelos, nunc terrae metior umbras
Mens coelestis erat, corporis umbra iacet.
I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure
Skybound was the mind, earthbound the body rests
The performance is top notch. The stage direction is imaginative, and beautifully paced, the action constantly rotating, to reflect the subject matter. Dennis Russel Davies understands how to conduct a Glass score - it isn't minimalist, it's a rich tapestry, which requires careful handling to bring out the texture. He succeeded (and received a standing ovation). Martin Achrainer's Kepler was beautifully sung, with great dignity and presence. The other six soloists, representing the planets, were splendid. The chorus, so important in Glass operas, was outstanding.
My only problem with the performance, and it's a very minor one, was the use of radio mikes to amplify the voices. Unfortunately they decided to position the microphone in the middle of the singer's forehead. From a seat in the theatre, this was probably invisible, but the all-seeing eye of the TV camera made the performers look as if they had antennae.
If you are a Philip Glass enthusiast, this is one to add to the collection - fully as good as any of the trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with his work, but are curious about this minimalism thing, you might like to try this performance. It's very melodic, and perfectly accesssible.
Strongly recommended, particularly for astronomers.
My only (non relevant) regret is that I can't get Glass's Akhnaten on DVD; I tremendously enjoyed seeing it at Chicago Opera Theater 10 years ago.
We have to understand this physicist lived in a pivotal period in Europe. He was born in 1571 and died in 1630, very exactly twelve years after the beginning of the 30 Years’ War in 1618 that was to end in 1648. On the other hand Gryphius was born in 1616 and died in 1664 and he lived his whole childhood and youth in the middle of this war. This pivotal period was centered in Germany around this long war between the Catholics and the Protestants. We have to understand that such religious wars were long and brutal in France, just the same in Germany and at the same time they were the main stake of the English Civil War and Puritan revolution, after having been the main stake under Henry VIII, his son Edward II, his daughter Mary I and his second daughter Elizabeth I. For at least three quarters of a century or even one full century the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants went on without any visible reconciliation possible.
It is though in this very period that science really started sprouting genuine buds and set its first concepts on the table. We all know Galileo Galilei and his battle with the Catholic Church that forced him to “renounce” and “reject” his own scientific results about the sun seen as the center of our universe, earth turning around it and turning on itself and the earth not being flat, but that last idea was already proved. Copernicus went just a little bit further and Kepler was following the same routes and theories. Kepler though was slightly influenced by astrology and he definitely did not leave behind the same heritage as the other two. He is simply part of this vast movement that prepares the next stage with Descartes, Newton and a few others.
Glass is obviously interested by scientists, science in general and cosmic science in particular. What does this opera make of Kepler and his scientific struggle?
All along Kepler says and repeats that the whole world is scientific, is governed by three principles: number, quantity and circular motion. He studies the various planets of our constellation and calculates their orbits. To do so he uses geometry, meaning Greek geometry. We have to keep in mind zero has not reached Europe yet and Descartes has not yet invented algebra and the decimal system. The six planets are Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mercury. Earth is the “measure for all other orbits that are connected to earth’s orbit via five geometric figures in fact polyhedrons all derived or connected to the earthly circle: a dodecahedron with twelve pentagonal faces, a tetrahedron with four triangular faces, a cube with six square faces, an icosahedron with twenty triangular faces and an octahedron with eight triangular faces. This gives a rather austere text that has to be vastly compensated by the music.
The long reference to Genesis leads strangely enough to Kepler opposing theology and reason and this theology in the Bible is from people we do not know, who speak some human language but explain nothing. That’s where the evocation of the night is essential, the night of darkness in which humans are kept very systematically. This evocation comes from Gryphius and is the somber reality of humanity, of God’s creation divided in fighting factions in the name of God. And yet Kepler defends the idea that physics is celestial. He uses the famous hypothetico-deductive method: hypotheses, image, construct, calculus, mode of calculation, demonstration, verification and that is concluded with “the true rules of our calculation.”
The idea is that “the mind of man was created for the perception of number and greatness,” meaning mathematical and physical science as well as the vastness or greatness of the cosmos. Thus man’s mind can only discover the numbers, formulas, rules, figures or patterns that are the architecture of the cosmos. This cosmos is absolutely logical, stable, a true miracle of rationality. And Kepler naturally concludes that this miraculous rationality is God’s creation in god’s image, hence is God himself. Kepler is able to reach God in the cosmos, to decipher him, to reveal his real nature and his rational existence and essence.
That’s when Gryphius comes in a second time with a phenomenal “Vanitas Vanitatum” and there the music, maybe for the very first time, reaches a dramatic power that it did not have before. This is due to the long and heavy repetition of these two Latin words. We always expect the third part of this quotation from the Bible but it never comes and the short German stanza is an evocation of war, destruction, fire, burning, ashes, etc. And the Latin burden that was powerful at the beginning of this track becomes a long dirge chanting the inevitable total destruction that will come without any possibility to escape. Science is beautiful, in the image of God who is then beautiful but humanity is ugly because in the name of God it is fighting to the death divided between various clans and tribes and churches and chapels and orders and factions. There is no hope in spite of the miracle science could bring directly from God.
Yet Kepler reacts and brings questions and questions require answers and that leads us to Kepler’s conclusion that “Without true knowledge life is dead.” In the 17th century true could only mean God’s truth. By the way the English translation is questionable many times, with many German structures transferred to English without any difference, distance or reflection and at times with some mistakes. When I quote the English translation I correct such mistakes. The end of the first act gives the last word to Gryphius again and this time we are ripped apart by the dilemma it contains. “What eyes see is nothing. When we close our eyes then we will see a lot more. In fact we will see and know everything.” How can we see and know everything when we close our eyes? That’s the dilemma. By looking inside our own mind which was created by God in his image we can discover the whole rational calculus God is just as we could discover it by observing the cosmos. This introspection leads us to God and thus justifies, verifies and proves that God is all and we are nothing but a pale image of him. He gave us our mind not to create rational truth but to discover God’s truth in our own mind itself.
At this moment Kepler and this opera reaches up to Blaise Pascal or up to René Descartes who both advocated that their scientific work was the only way to prove the existence of God by demonstrating his creation is rational. If it is rational it’s because there is a rational being behind, and that is God, and since we are made in his image then we can decipher that rationality, though we will never get to the end of it.
The second act though is completely different. Kepler starts with astrology, that fake science, even in the 17th century. What a rational victory to calculate the date and time of one’s own conception by looking at the stars and the constellations! And at once he is compared to a dog, an aggressive dog because this astrology is a refuge against the world, and Kepler himself enumerates his enemies, those who want him dead, etc. At this moment he appears as a paranoid person who tries to find some solace in astrology. He is victimized because “Mercury is in the quadrate of Mars, the Sun in the sextile of Saturn, and Mercury and the Sun are in the seventh house.” And that is dramatic indeed. “Mercury in the 7th House with the Sun confers objectivity. . . This combination, however, heightens a person’s sensitivity to the expectations of others and creates a correspondingly greater difficulty in defining and supporting his own stance.” (http://www.dkfoundation.co.uk/dkfoundation/BookKarmaHouse7.htm) But Kepler seems to be losing his rationality at this science when he says “True astrology is a testimonial of God’s work.” Of course if it is true it is the direct reflection of God’s intention and will. But this is pure superstition as for astrology and it is pure speculation as for God. Astrology is typically an invention of man that is not rationally based in the 17th century any more and then if it reflected the creative work of God, God himself who was declared before a rational being, would become a superstitious irrational being.
And that’s when Kepler really escapes from God’s hand and comes to a conclusion supported by astrology: “Man’s will, the soul’s first faculty, is and remains free.” I have corrected the translation. There is no future expressed here as the translation says “and will always be free.” The German text says “und bleibt frei.” Kepler is just a defensive paranoid person who tries to appear as a true Christian with his reference to the soul, and in the libretto that reference is in Latin (“princeps animae facultas”) which makes him a good Catholic actually since Latin is rejected by the Protestants. And that’s when Gryphius intervenes again with a vision of war in the obvious name of God, a war in which some human blinds some others in the name of God on both sides and we have to understand blinding as concerning the blinding of man’s reason with God’s truth as much as the actual blinding of the mortals of one religion by the mortals of the other religion, always in the name of God. That leads Gryphius to an extremely dejected and sad conclusion that God has burned his heart and mind and yet he is expecting to be free of sorrows tomorrow in God himself.
We come then to another scientific moment that is rather light in meaning. At first the physicist thought the planets were running on circular orbits, which was proved false, so the physicist moved to an oval orbit which was also proved false and then the physicist moved to an ellipse. And the choir then comes up with one of these superb moments when this scientific deductive procedure of establishing a model and then verifying it or disproving it and then changing the model accordingly, etc., is seen as the very rational nature of God and this slow moving towards a model that is close enough to reality to be considered as true, for the time being at least, is the proof of the existence of God the creator of all things. The conclusion is dramatically absurd, but note it is in Latin in the original libretto, once more a sign of allegiance to the Catholic Church: “From Him, through Him, and in Him is everything, Amen.” And this allegiance is even stronger when we consider “your Creator” just before was in Latin “Dominum Creatorem tuum,” thus God was “your Lord Creator” at least.
Luckily Gryphius comes up again with a long poem on the ugliness of war. War could be compared to a plague, fire or famine but it is a lot more than that. And Gryphius wants to remain “silent about what’s worse than death, about what’s worse than plague, fire, and famine . . . many lost their souls’ salvation.” These wars in the name of God are the worst thing to do because your godlike side and your divine future in salvation are both negated and you are reduced to what was called before nothing but “a common dog.“
So Kepler can conclude this opera and his life with the fact that his freedom gives him the power to choose but his choice is between present devastation or future devastation, devastation right now or devastation tomorrow morning. And he comes to this realistic and phenomenal conclusion that he is in total loneliness, that he is both a guest and a stranger, that he has lost all identity and is anonymous, that he is a barbarian for the people around him whose language he does not understand nor speak and thus he has only one exit, one hope: to find in death an eternal ground where he could cast his anchor and find some stability.
But the opera is a loop that starts with Kepler’s own epitaph and ends with Kepler’s own epitaph, four lines in Latin. Strangely enough the opening epitaph is like a somber Tenebrae by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the closing epitaph is like a peaceful and pacified Ruht Wohl from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint John’s Passion. From the descent into a hell of perdition to the ascent into an eternity of dreamlike sleep.
There is something else to say about the music. Of course the minimalist constant and steady at times heavy often humdrum always tantric repetition of two or three or four notes imposing regular and unvarying rhythms, tempos and beats is also regularly superimposed with melodious longer musical sentences that enable the singing to find a tone, a depth and even some more complex emotion like hatred, fright, condescendence, anger, vision, illusion, disillusion, desire to escape and even once or twice some lustful moments. And yet the music is always the accompaniment of the text. If you do not penetrate the words you will get nothing at all. The Word and the Word alone is the creator of this world or existence, and if you believe that Word has created the universe how could you not believe the Word of this opera is the basic creating element, the body of that creator when the music is the soul of it and we only have our mind to capture both and reunite them. But a soul without a body or a body without a soul, that does not sound very sexy.
And for those who will dare get to the DVD I must add the production of this opera in Linz was probably admirable and definitely revealed the real dimension of Glass’ music? The tempos, rhythms and beats become some accompaniment of what you see on the stage and what you hear from the stage. In fact that accompaniment becomes like a baroque continuo, or the music in a film. Without it the opera would sound empty, and yet we do not hear it anymore because of what is happening on the stage, of what is being sung on the stage.
The production was very pure with a lot of darkness, red light and only one scene really that was ochre and golden. The entrance of Kepler on his gurney horizontal at first and then straightening slowly to end at an angle like the very special gurney on which Hannibal Lecter, alias or aka Anthony Hopkins, was transported from his cell to any place he had to go to. Strikingly impressive for the opening Tenebrae of the first epitaph as if it w<ere a resurrection from the tomb and at the end when he is replaced on it and moved away along with the second performance of his epitaph it becomes pacifying like the vision of a child that is put to bed and slowly rocked to sleep after a long temper tantrum. There is in this vision of death opening and closing the evocation some kind of softening and smoothening of the tough and rough confrontation of science to religion and of man to war, two impossible face-on one-on-ones that no one on earth wants to experience at any time in our short passage on this planet.
Some might think the use of many mechanical elements on the stage to represent the machine of science is sort of cumbersome, but I find it rather pacifying because of the extreme stability these mechanical props have in a story that is and remains very somber and squalid in many ways. That was a time when after 300,000 years Homo Sapiens was finally able to put down on the table of his mind, which was no tabula rasa, the very first methodical principles and concepts he will need to build modern science and the modern world. All that was probably not durable since it had to be reexamined all the time, but it was sustainable in the fact that every moment produced the next one without any stop. The whole history of man is the constant adjustment of a circular orbit to an oval orbit and then to an elliptical orbit, which is like the Mandorla of a Jesus Christ in his Glory, or like the scientist in his never completed quest. Yet too often we are the barking common dogs of the battle fields of all fundamentalists. Isn’t there a Jihad behind every scientific concept of human thinking?
A story of some possible melodious salvation on a background of techno rhythmic heart beats stuck forever in what sounds like one groove looping onto itself. That sounds like Frederic Chopin’s Little Dog Waltz in D flat major and we can end divinely flat on our stomach in front of such major revelation.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU