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Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) & Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft)
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Philip Glass celebrates 70th with compelling new opera

SAN FRANCISCO — “My subject is war and the pity of war, and the poetry is in the pity.”

Philip Glass: Appomattox

Above: Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) & Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft)
All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of the San Francisco Opera


Philip Glass might well have prefaced his new opera “Appomattox” with Wilfred Owen’s words that Benjamin Britten chose to introduce his War Requiem in 1962. For although “Appomattox,” given its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera here on October 5, is in no way a pacifist pamphlet, it reaffirms the commitment to peace and to non-violence that Glass first expressed in his Ghandi opera “Satyagraha” three decades ago. Happily, however, there is nothing tendentious about “Appomattox,” an extended account of the 1865 meeting between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that seemingly ended the Civil War.

Seemingly — for here the concern of Glass and his librettist, British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, looks beyond Lee’s surrender of his army at Appomattox Court House to underscore the wounds of that war that remain unhealed today, 150 years after the meeting of the two generals. Glass counterpoints this historic event with the massacre of black militia by Louisiana racists in 1873, the murder of civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson by Alabama State Troopers in 1965 and the hate-filled words of Edgar Ray Killen, the Klan member convicted only in 2005 for his role involved in the slaughter of a trio of civil rights workers 40 years earlier. (Glass’ ballad for Jackson — the composer calls it “a Bob Dylan song” — will undoubtedly have a life of its own beyond the opera.) “War is always sorrowful. Never has so much blood been drained. Let this be the last time,” sing the women who open — and later close - “Appomattox.”

And Grant and Lee, portrayed here as men of dignity, moral stature and generous spirit, are determined that the conflict that took over 600,000 lives should be the last war. “How we end the war today will still be felt a hundred years from now,” Grant says, while Glass’ music makes the general’s words unmistakably ominous. Grant is sung by bass Andrew Shore, Lee by bass baritone Dwayne Croft and Lincoln by bass Jeremy Galyon, low voices all that underscore the sorrow of the tale as Glass tells it. Indeed, it was the failure of that dream that accounts for the dark undertow of the new opera, for the optimism that Ghandi’s non-violence once inspired in Glass is no longer present here.

In this ahistoric age Grant and Lee are little more than cardboard cutouts on the distant horizon of fourth-grade history. Glass, however, brings them to life as men of character and intellect and it is this that gives “Appomattox” its aura of human warmth. Grant, although unkempt, scruffy and fresh from battle, is not the bumpkin as which he is often portrayed, and Lee is every inch a Southern gentleman and aristocrat. (The scene, in which Lee is dressed on stage for the crucial meeting, recalls Don Giovanni’s preparation for the “Champagne” aria.) The respect of the two men for each other — and their shared concern for their mission — is genuine. And their wives, along with Lee’s daughter Agnes, Mrs. Lincoln and her soothsaying seamstress, are late descendants of Euripides’ Trojan women after the sack of their city, for they sense the ominous side of the “peace” about to be concluded. It is they who see the inhuman dimension of the war and lament its consequences.

All five women are impressively sung by SFO Adler fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Elza van den Heever, Ji Young Yang, Heidi Melton and Kendall Gladen. Impressive also is the ability that Glass has now developed to make words fully comprehensible — even without resorting to the titles now traditional everywhere. “The tessitura, or placement of the voice, will determine a lot about comprehensibility,” the composer says. “For example, in English the final consonants often indicate the meaning of a vowel. So if you go very high with the voice it becomes difficult to understand the words. “What you’re looking for is a style of singing that is melodic but stays well within the range of spoken voice.”

One thing most will learn from the opera is that Appomattox Court House is not the seat of local government that the name commonly implies, but rather an entire small town, in which the generals met in the living room of Wilmer McLean. Designer Riccardo Hernandez has recreated this modest room — complete with period furniture — for the second act of “Appomattox.” Overall, however, Hernandez’ finest work is the curtain of glass and steel that the audience sees upon entering the War Memorial Opera House for this production. It is — literally — a cutting-edge expression of the nature of war. On the other hand, for the destruction of Richmond he takes his cues from Cecil B. DeMille and detracts from Glass’ score with realistic artillery and fireworks.

“Appomattox” is in a sense Glass own celebration of his 70th birthday, which took place in January. And in a superbly informative interview with his team in the SFO program book, he makes note of the distance he has traveled since the 1989 production of “Satyagraha” here. “It was the very night of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in China,” he recalls. “And I’ve moved away from the optimism you see in my early works.” He states that the world has become a threatening place and laments that such statesmen as Grant and Lee have been replaced today by mere politicians. And Grass’ style has changed markedly from the repetitive patterns of his nascent minimalism.

“Appomattox” is at times richly melodic, and orchestral interludes - such as the music that marks the destruction of Richmond — is highly dramatic in its descriptive force. This is not to say that this is a perfect work; the chorus of black Union soldiers, for example, should be shortened. To dwell on shortcomings, however, is to overlook the grand achievement of “Appomattox” and to fail to be moved by its absolute integrity and the intensity of its message.

Appomattox2.pngThe Union Army’s XXV Corps

Philip Glass has been his own man since the beginning, and his concern for the war between the States dates back to “CIVIL warS,”, his collaboration with Robert Wilson for 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. To measure him by the ruler defined by Mozart ignores the originality of a man who has contributed to every known genre and — in his collaborations with poet Allen Ginsberg and his operas built upon Jean Cocteau films, to mention only two examples — he has created some of his own. And, as librettist Woodruff observes, in “Appomattox” Glass has dealt meaningfully with a chapter in history that “still sits in the middle of the psyche of the American people in an iconic way; the resonance between that moment in history and the succeeding moments of violence and violation of that pact.”

Originally a commission for the Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley brought “Appomattox” with him when he became general director of the San Francisco Opera in 2006. It is thus his first SFO commission. Although there are at present no plans for staging “Appomattox” elsewhere, the work seems destined for great popularity. Indeed, it seems safe to say that with the new work Philip Glass has created an operatic companion piece to “Gone with the Wind.”

Wes Blomster

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