NEW YORK — WITH the world premiere of Philip Glass's "The Voyage," the Metropolitan Opera has offered its second commissioned opera in as many seasons, after a hiatus of 26 years.
The opera, which opened last week, is loosely inspired by the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's historic and currently controversial crossing of the Atlantic. Glass has stated in numerous interviews that he was not interested in depicting Columbus's discovery yet again, but rather in probing the spirit of exploration. The production, designed by Robert Israel, is full of arresting sets and startling scene changes - floating poles, rooms that pull apart, a bed that ascends to the stars - that take f ull advantage of the Met's stage.
Glass's scenario begins with a Stephen Hawkings-like scientist ruminating on quarks and black holes, then segues to a spaceship about to crash on Earth circa 15,000 BC. The second act unfolds in Columbus's imagination - his departure from Barcelona, his nightmarish dreams during the crossing. The final act takes place in 2900 AD and culminates with a spaceship launch.
Musically, Glass has moved dramatically away from the endlessly repeated patterns that came to be known as "minimalism." In fact, the first act is a new stretch for Glass - an expansive, harmonically more varied, rhythmically more inventive, dramatically more riveting, arching 50-minute whole. The remaining two acts do not continue at such an inspired level. The second is a long meditation for Columbus, and the third a rather elegiac hodgepodge. Both offer moments of beauty and drama, and Columbus's renu nciation of the ghost of Isabella makes for an eloquent finale.
Ironically, when I listened to a tape of the Theta Radio Network broadcast of the world-premiere performance, I found much more to admire in those acts once the music was divorced from the disappointingly trivial and even stale images imposed on it by debuting director David Pountney: Where Glass and his librettist David Henry Hwang ask for a scene in India, Pountney gives us a throng of schoolchildren; where a spectacular space launch is indicated, Poutney gives us a puny ICBM and an irritating, gratuit ous mass assassination. And so it goes. Mr. Israel tries his best to make the images arresting, but too often Dunya Ramicova's costumes clash with those images.
Glass counts "The Voyage" as his 11th opera, so it could be said that he is now a seasoned practitioner of the genre. In fact, parts of the opera are downright haunting vocally, particularly the Commander's elaborate aria at the end of the first act, and much of Isabella's music.
Because this was the Met, singers not usually associated with Glass were commandeered, particularly Tatiana Troyanos, a vocally voluptuous Isabella, and Timothy Noble, who made a dignified Columbus of exemplary diction (the only one, in fact, who could always be understood). Bass Julien Robbins - who was a strong Crespel in the Met's opening-night "Tales of Hoffmann" - made me wish he had been given a lot more to sing here. Patricia Schuman looked stately but sounded uncomfortable in the Commander's musi c. Glass veteran singer Douglas Perry, in his Met debut, sang several roles, as did Kaaren Erikson. Jane Shaulis and Jan Opalach also participated. The Met chorus sang rousingly.
In the pit, debuting conductor Bruce Ferden marshalled the orchestra handsomely and made it seem as if the players were all old hands at what amounts to an alien idiom for them.
Does the piece deserve a post-premiere life? Unquestionably. Though it is not so remarkably cogent and bewitching an experience as his 1980 opera, "Satyagraha" (also directed by Pountney to far better effect), it has music of great power, and with a director who really understands the bold and fresh images, "The Voyage" could be even more stirring.