Reviewed by Judy Richter
The Civil War was a terrible period in American history, and the nation is still suffering some of its repercussions. That's the main premise of "Appomattox," the Philip Glass opera commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Opera and its general director, David Gockley. The opera boasts an impressive creative credentials. In addition to music by Glass, it includes a libretto by playwright Christopher Hampton, stage direction by Robert Woodruff, musical direction by Dennis Russell Davies, sets by Riccardo Hernandez, period costumes by Gabriel Berry and lighting by Christopher Akerlind.
The action focuses on the week leading up to the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, to U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Army of the Potomac, essentially ending the Civil War on April 9, 1865. It also looks at some shocking instances of violence and racism continuing for more than a century afterward. Finally it focuses on the women who are left behind when their husbands, brothers and fathers march off to war, never to return.
There's no overture. Instead, a double door in a metallic wall opens on Julia Dent Grant (soprano Rhoslyn Jones), the general's wife, who voices her concerns. She's followed by Mary Custis Lee (soprano Elza van den Heever), the general's wheelchair-using wife, accompanied by their daughter, Julie Agnes (soprano Ji Young Yang), and then by Mary Todd Lincoln (soprano Heidi Melton), the president's wife, accompanied by her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley (mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen), a former slave. They're joined by women of Ian Robertson's great SFO Chorus, who lament, over and over, "War is always sorrowful."
>From there the action switches to a meeting between President Abraham Lincoln (bass Jeremy Galyon) and Grant (baritone Andrew Shore), at which Lincoln tells Grant he wants the terms of surrender to be generous. We also meet Lee (baritone Dwayne Croft), who tells his wife that loyalty to his native state, Virginia, was the most important reason for his siding with the Confederacy rather than the Union.
Most of the plot unfolds as recitative rather than arias, so one can't term it particularly melodic. However, the underlying orchestration supplies much of the emotion that one might ordinarily find in an aria. There also are some songs for the chorus, including the familiar "Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground," and some rousing ones composed by Glass.
Woodruff's staging has some strong moments, including early in the opera when the members of the women's chorus place framed photos of soldiers -- presumably loved ones -- along the base of the stage platform. Those photos remain in place throughout the 2 1/2-hour, two-act opera. Another powerful moment comes after Grant and Lee have signed the surrender at the home of Wilmer McLean (Torlef Borsting) in Appomattox Court House, Va. First one man comes in and offers to buy a desk, and another man offers twice that. Then other men start carrying off everything -- furniture, pictures on the wall, the rug. Finally, they remove the white cloth that formed the walls, perhaps symbolizing their contempt for the surrender and certainly symbolizing the greed and rapacity to come.
Another powerful symbol is the bloody dead horses that are lowered from overhead after a battle and again at the end. At first they seem offensive, but gradually one sees that they represent the awful waste of life, both human and animal, that war engenders.
On the other hand, the action comes to a halt during the first act, when the men of the SFO Chorus sing "Tenting Tonight..." backstage while Grant and Lee stand contemplatively with their backs to the audience. If and when the opera is restaged, this scene needs rethinking.
The singing is magnificent throughout the cast. In addition to those already named, the standouts include tenor Noah Stewart as T. Morris Chester, a black journalist from the Philadelphia Press, and bass-baritone Philip Skinner, who has a long monologue as Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan organizer and Baptist minister who was convicted on three counts of manslaughter in 2005 for the killings of three civil rights activists in 1964. Appearing as an octogenarian in a wheelchair, Killen still spews hatred and racism and seems to have no regrets for his views and actions.
It should be noted that the San Francisco Opera Center's young Adler Fellows have been given major assignments and carried them out nobly in this production. They include Jones, van den Heever, Yang, Melton, Gladen, Galyon and Stewart. In addition, Skinner is a former Adler Fellow who has gone on to a distinguished career.
Glass, Hampton and their colleagues have admirably succeeded in their goals, providing a memorable music-theater experience while adhering to historical accuracy.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.