Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Fables and the Fabulous from Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at the Proms

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra took us through fairy-tale forests, antique lands and into fantasy worlds in this fabulous Prom, which celebrated Maurice Ravel’s genius as a musical story-teller.

The Bassarids at the Salzburg Festival

Hans Werner Henze’s fifth opera, The Bassarids (those who wear fox skins) had its world premiere at Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus in 1966. Now, 52 years later Henze’s massive “opera seria” returns, but to the Felsenreitschule —the old riding school made into a theater that hosts the Salzburg Festival’s difficult operas, the Grosses Festspielhaus now dedicated to the grand repertoire.

Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger commemorated at the Proms

Two French commemorations - ‘anniversaries’ always seems the wrong word - and surely is - here: the centenary of the deaths of Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger.

Pique Dame in Salzburg

It was emeritus night at the Salzburg Festival with 75 year old maestro Mariss Jansons conducting 77 year old stage director Hans Neuenfels production about Pushkin’s 87 year old countess known as the Pique Dame.

Lohengrin at Bayreuth

Three electrifying moments and the world is forever changed.

Salome in Salzburg

A Romeo Castellucci production is always news, it is even bigger news just now in Salzburg where Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian has made her debut as the fifteen year-old Salome.

Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem - BBC Prom 41

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger . Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible "1918" theme

John Wilson brings Broadway to South Kensington: West Side Story at the BBC Proms

There were two, equal ‘stars’ of this performance of the authorised concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Lenny’ himself, whose vibrant score - by turns glossy and edgy - truly shone, and conductor John Wilson, who made it gleam, and who made us listen afresh and intently to every coloristic detail and toe-tapping, twisting rhythm.

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship.

Prom 33: Thea Musgrave, Phoenix Rising, and Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern.

Gianni Schicchi by Oberlin in Italy

It’s an all too rare pleasure to see Puccini’s only comedy as a stand alone opera. And more so when it is a careful production that uncovers the all too often overlooked musical and dramatic subtleties that abound in Puccini’s last opera.

Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

The mood in the city is certainly soporific at the moment, as the blistering summer heat takes its toll and the thermometer shows no signs of falling. Fittingly, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton presented a recital of English song settings united by the poetic themes of night, sleep, dreams and nightmares, juxtaposing masterpieces of the early-twentieth-century alongside new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Australian composer Lisa Illean, and two ‘long-lost’ songs by Britten.

Vanessa: Keith Warner's Glyndebourne production exposes truths and tragedies

“His child! It must not be born!” Keith Warner’s new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes two births, one intimated, the other aborted, the driving force of the tragedy which consumes two women, Vanessa and her niece Erika, rivals for the same young man, Anatol, son of Vanessa’s former lover.

Rollicking Rossini in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera welcomed home a winningly animated production of L’Italiana in Algeri this season that utterly delighted a vociferously responsive audience.

Rock solid Strauss Salomé- Salzburg

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level. The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage. Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions of excellence the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini.

Parsifal: Munich Opera Festival

And so, this year’s Munich Opera Festival and this year’s Bavarian State Opera season came to a close with everyone’s favourite Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, in the final outing this time around for Pierre Audi’s new production.

Santa Fe: Atomic Doesn’t Quite Ignite

What more could we want than having Peter Sellars re-imagine his acclaimed staging of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the renowned Santa Fe Opera festival?

Santa Fe: Continuing a Proud Strauss Tradition

Santa Fe Opera has an enduring reputation for its Strauss, and this season’s enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos surely made John Crosby smile proudly.

From the House of the Dead: Munich Opera Festival

Frank Castorf might have been born to direct From the House of the Dead. In this, his third opera project - or better, his third opera project in the opera house, for his Volksbühne Meistersinger must surely be reckoned with, even by those of us who did not see it - many of his hallmarks and those of his team are present, yet without the slightest hint of staleness, of anything other than being reborn for and in the work.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) & Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft)
15 Oct 2007

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):