Like the movie Memento, the play Betrayal and the musical Merrily We Roll Along, Portland Opera's new production of Philip Glass' Galileo Galilei proceeds backward in time. Directed by Kevin Newbury, who staged the company's 2006 production of John Adams' Nixon in China, the new production features PO's young studio artists, including impressive singers Lindsay Ohse, Nicholas Nelson and Andre Chiang. The chamber ensemble is conducted by Anne Manson, who also helmed this season's Madame Butterfly and the Opera's acclaimed production of Glass' Orphée in 2009. 

When Glass was here for that show, artistic director Christopher Mattaliano asked the composer if he had any candidates who might work well in the company's annual production in the intimate Newmark Theatre. Glass proposed a revival of his 18th opera. 

Despite Glass' reputation as a cerebral composer, Mattaliano loved the Galileo score's emotional power. It's much more lyric than Orphée's score, particularly in the major scene in which church officials force the scientist to recant facts he knows to be true. "The score captures that anguish the character feels," Mattaliano says. While the story touches on the faith-vs.-reason theme that powers Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo, Glass' opera focuses more on the wonder of scientific exploration.

Glass, celebrated for metaphorical operas about history-changing figures like Einstein, Gandhi, Akhenaten and Columbus, originally brought the backward-in-time idea to the Tony- and MacArthur "genius grant"-winning director Mary Zimmerman, who co-wrote the original libretto with Glass and playwright Arnold Weinstein and directed its 2002 premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Zimmerman found Glass, who started his career in the theater with the Mabou Mines company 40 years ago, "the perfect collaborator," willing to adjust his ideas and music to the director's vision.  

Their chamber opera's 10 scenes comprise "a series of vignettes of key moments of his life going backwards, with music and lyrics that link those thematic moments together,” she says. 

Zimmerman added the closing childhood scene, in which the boy who would change humanity's understanding of the universe attends an opera written by his father, who was a composer and musician in the circle of Italian artists who created the form. His father's opera is about the blind hunter Orion, thus bringing Glass' Galileo Galilei—which opens with the blind, dying scientist recalling his life—full circle.

SEE IT: Galileo Galilei is at the Newmark Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 241-1802, 7:30 pm Friday, March 30. 2 pm Sunday, April 1. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, April 3, 5 and 7. $20-$115.