Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 51 / 18 December 2014
 
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Rendezvous at Appomattox

Music

San Francisco Opera's world premiere of a Glass opera


Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) and Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft) in San Francisco Opera's Appomattox. Photo: Terrence McCarthy
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The world premiere of any American opera is always a big deal, but the birth of a new work by Philip Glass takes on a special historical significance of its own. It seems only fitting that the subject matter of Appomattox, which opened last week at the San Francisco Opera, depicts an epochal event in American history.

Huge topics have never stopped Glass from creating great opera in the past. His Satyagraha managed not only to capture the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi in an inspired and groundbreaking score, but it also brought a completely new audience to an enthusiastic embrace of contemporary music.

As the first piece commissioned by new General Director David Gockley, Appomattox has been accorded the best production crew imaginable. Director Robert Woodruff, set designer Riccardo Hernandez, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and conductor Dennis Russell Davies are all making their debuts with the SFO, though Davies has worked on several Glass premieres elsewhere. Chorus director Ian Robertson is also on board to add strong musical support in the rousing ensembles.

Even with such a winning crew and a relatively luxurious period of rehearsals, however, Appomattox still betrays a lingering air of "wet ink" syndrome. The ambitious vision of Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton may have been realized to their satisfaction, but the finished product is frustratingly uneven to observers accustomed to the composer's more cohesive previous efforts.

There is still much to praise about the remarkably compressed work (a mere two and a half-hours), and some of the big set pieces of the score do pack a very impressive punch. An awful lot of information is packed into the time frame — too much, frankly, and I wouldn't have objected to a longer score with less abrupt episodes.

Glass has embarked on a more conventional compositional approach with British playwright Hampton, building his music in blocks that crest and subside with the conclusion of each scene. It replaces his customarily slow unfolding of repetitive melody with subtly shifting harmonies.

The orchestral effects are more dramatic and roughhewn than ever before, and the extended vocal exposition, which threatens to bog down parts of the first act, is still buoyed by a somber rhythmic impetus.

Glass has reset the moving "Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground," including the startling "Dying Tonight" words of the seldom-heard third verse, but it is the only music in the score by another composer. The civil rights marching song in Act II is original, but it sounds remarkably familiar and is especially powerful.

The women begin and end the opera with a moving observation on the sorrows of all war and the horrific upheaval of the Civil War in particular. The fallout continues to plague us more than a century later, and that seems to be the point of the opera.

The wives of the generals are given special prominence. Sopranos Rhoslyn Jones and Elza van den Heever portray Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Lee with a strong vocal eloquence, and their frequent contributions add some much-needed personality to the story.

As Grant and Lee, baritones Andrew Shore and Dwayne Croft made suitably star-quality appearances in the best-written parts. Hampto

A scene from San Francisco Opera's Appomattox, Act I. Photo: Terrence McCarthy
n has tried adding touches of character to the smaller roles as well, but to less potent effect. The Lincolns, well sung by soprano Heidi Melton and bass Jeremy Galyon, seem sketchier. The towering President is like a character in a school pageant, and his famously complicated wife comes across only as petty and unpleasant in Act I, to reappear briefly in a show-stopping vignette in Act II as a veritable figure from Greek tragedy.

There is a kind of stop-and-start action in both parts, but it is marvelously dramatic in Act I when the stage picture expands for a thrilling depiction of the fall of Richmond — visually stunning and disturbing, with four larger-than-life-sized horses' carcasses suspended from the flies.

Flash forward

The shorter Act II, with its flash-forwards to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, is fragmented and stylistically unmatched. The episodes that break into the grim gentility of the actual surrender scene are intentionally jarring, and there are moments of amazing theatre, to be sure, but it feels like a different opera altogether.

The Chorus gets the most exciting music, and while director Woodruff is unsteady in his handling of crowd scenes, the black soldiers of Act I and the civil rights marchers of Act II made a mightily impressive contribution on opening night. Only the wordless chorus during the destruction of Richmond proved dramatically and musically weak.

The inclusion of two unexpected characters, African American journalist T. Morris Chester and Klansman Edgar Ray Killen (convicted just two years ago for his killing of three civil rights advocates), added highly contrasted images of the racial divide in America. As Chester, Adler Fellow Noah Stewart had two chances to impress: with an aria in Act I, filing a report about the fall of Richmond; and with a sad dispatch about the massacre of a black platoon in Act II. His performance was impassioned and beautifully sung.

As the monstrous murderer Killen, bass-baritone Philip Skinner made a stunning impact. His brief and terrifying appearance could have been borrowed from Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, but Glass' appropriately ugly music segued well to the pessimistic reminder of Abraham Lincoln's view of human nature that followed, and the Epilogue.

Framed again by the carrion of the suspended horses, the women repeated their sorrowful anthem about war. A quick blackout, and the saga of the surrender at Appomattox was over.

Audience response was understandably strong, and the curtain-call appearance of Glass (with Hampton and all his other collaborators) prompted one of the most genuine standing ovations in memory.

If Appomattox is disappointingly less than the sum of its considerable parts, it still enters the repertory as one of the bravest attempts to really say something in an opera since, well, Satyagraha.






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