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.”
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.
Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.
SAN FRANCISCO — “My subject is war and the pity of war, and the poetry is in the pity.”
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.
The 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.”