Human behavior’s funny. The more we try to change the more we don’t seem able to. Are we cursed to repeat the same mistakes in our private lives — with lovers, friends — as well as in our public ones? Are we genetically condemned to disjunction, discord, and war, like Sisyphus trying to keep that enormous rock from crushing him each day? Philip Glass’ SF Opera commission, APPOMATTOX, which world premiered 5 October, and which I caught 16 October, seems to accept these things as givens. Its ostensible subject is Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on 9 April 1865, and its subsequent impact. But its central question seems to be how can we change history if we can’t even change ourselves?
These are weighty questions, and Glass’ music addresses them with seriousness and point. The opening figure for double basses and wind mixtures is immediately affecting. Then Julia Dent Grant (soprano Rhoslyn Jones) emerges from a backlit alcove in Riccardo Hernandez’s umbrous metal set, her posture contained, “The spring campaign ___ In four short years I have grown to dread those words … “ She joins four other women — Mary Custis Lee (soprano Elza van den Heever), her daughter Julia Agnes (soprano Ji Young Yang), Mary Todd Lincoln (soprano Heidi Melton), and her black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (mezzo Kendall Gladen) — in an almost Baroque lament on the sorrows of war — ” never before has so much blood been drained … Let this be the last time.. ” The women who stand behind their men and keep it all together are, of course, the unsung heroines of any war, and Glass’ immediate focus on them, signals this piece’s unwavering depth.
And everyone’s an outsider here, even the ostensible heroes Grant (bass baritone Andrew Shore), and Lee (baritone Dwayne Croft), who didn’t want this war, and in Lee’s case, didn’t know which side to fight on. And just about everyone in APPOMATTOX faces hard, existential questions. Will they behave properly before, during, and after the surrender? And what will its repercussions be?
Glass’ music is aware of these repercussions every step of the way, and never flinches from the stark emotional facts of Christopher Hampton’s eminently singable book. A lot of people have groused about Glass’ music for years, and some people are still grousing. Sure, Glass uses some of his standard building blocks here–one is reminded of Brahms’ testy response to someone who jumped on something patently obvious in his music, “any fool can see that!”– but they appear and reappear in surprising ways. His overriding concern is to set Hampton’s words as clearly and conversationally as possible, and so the vocal writing here is light years away from that in his portrait trilogy — EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH ( 1975 ), SATYAGRAHA ( 1980 ), and AKHNATEN ( 1984 )–where Glass was more concerned with words as sound and not as bearers of rationally perceived meanings. His clear as light scoring supports the voices, especially in the long conversational yet highly expressive stretches which form the bulk of Act I’s 69 minutes; though, in the concluding 46 minute Act II, somewhat less so. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who made his company debut here, is a superb interpreter–he’s known and worked with the composer for over 30 years–calls him ” an expert dramatist ,” and he isn’t kidding. Act I’s prologue and 5 subsequent scenes were seamless and succinct, and the wordless chorus in scene 4, The Fall of Richmond, conveyed much of its poignancy and horror.
The harmonic language, though distinctly Glass, was also fresh and unique. Chains of thirds, fourths, and fifths sometimes accompanied the frequent piano vocal exchanges, especially in Act 1. The Fall Of Richmond, was a loud dance in 6/4, for lower strings, brass, and percussion, entering methodically yet dramatically in well thought out layers, with varied structures — twelve notes grouped as 2 + 2 + 2+ 2+ 2 + 2, alternating, or enclosing twelve, as 4 + 4 + 4 . Glass’ use of fourths, along with open fifths, augmented fifths (tritones), diminished sevenths and diminished tenths, intensified the chaos onstage, as refugees ran for their lives down Hernandez’s steel ramp.
APPOMATTOX’s orchestral coloring was everywhere expressive and supple. Glass made inspired use of the pungent grainy sound of double basses, divisi strings, massed and solo winds, like English horn and contra bass clarinet — a wonderful dark sonority, percussion, including anvil and marimba. His skill at finding disparate emotional colors within scenes, like that depicting the surrender at Wilmer McLean’s house, was astonishing. And who but he would even notice, much less write such clearly apposite music, when a normal composer would probably just produce yards of accompanimental stuff on automatic pilot. This was truly chamber writing — the combinations kept changing, like those Monteverdi produced, when he invented opera.
Robert Woodruff’s directorial inventions were also inspired, and avoided overkill. The dismantling of McLean’s house was gradual but shocking, the formal grouping of the prologue’s opening quintet unfussy yet elegant, the gestures he provided for Grant and Lee, both naturalistic and slightly stylized. He also negotiated the tricky waters of Act II, where Hampton and Glass have imagined the future legacy of the Appomattox surrender breaking into this iconic moment, with ease. The dreamlike entrance of 60′s Civil Rights marchers was perfectly logical as was the astounding turn by KKK member Edgar Ray Killen (bass baritone Philip Skinner) who came out in a wheelchair, and Robert Akerlnd’s lighting and Gabriel Berry’s costumes were powerful additions to the overall mis en scene. There wasn’t one weak link in the entire cast, from Croft and Shore, who drew highly varied colors from their demanding parts, to tenor Noah Stewart, as black reporter T. Morris Chester, bass Jeremy Galyon’s Lincoln, the quintet of wives, daughters, and seamstress, who sang Glass’ exposed as Mozart music with firm technique and clear emotional projection, and Ian Robertson’s chorus produced wonderfully blended sounds. The lion’s share of the success of any opera, especially a new one, falls of course to the orchestra, and Davies’ was clearly with him every step of the way. Their sound throughout was beautiful, thrilling, and apparently effortless.
The epilogue, for Mrs. Grant–”‘War is always sorrowful,’ he said. And stepped into the morning” — and a chorus of sopranos and altos, was an exquisite and deeply moving extension of the opera’s theme. Will human beings ever stop fighting? Will reconciliation and forgiveness ever light the chambers of the human heart, or are these things, momentary at best? Or are we condemned to continue repeating the same mistakes till kingdom come? Glass and company merely present the stark truths, which seem to chime with Wilmer McLean’s words earlier in the evening. “We ran to hide from the war. And now the war has come to seek us out. “