Some of the world premieres I’ve gone to have been tarted up with klieg lights and glam women in gowns they should have known better than to wear; not so last Friday night at Appomattox,the new Philip Glass opera, and the subdued, even somber atmosphere was better suited to this somber and meditative piece. The opera opens and closes with clusters (not really a chorus) of women: Julia Grant worries about her husband, who has assured her the bloody war will end soon; the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Lee counsels her daughter on facing adversity with fortitude; Mrs. Lincoln and her black seamstress discuss their anxieties and interpret dreams. Christopher Hampton's libretto deftly individualizes the women through the course of the evening and avoids the sentimental mistake of separating them into a Trojan Women chorus lamenting a disaster they are related to only through suffering. In the final scene, the same women repeat the opinion of Abraham Lincoln, with all the moral weight his words carry for an American audience, that war and the suffering of war are inevitable. Not only has this war not ended with the triumph of justice, but it is part of the endless cycle of violence and suffering; if the mournful conclusion of this opera isn’t inspiriting like the final aria in Satyagraha, it’s because that aria expressed an endless cycle of suffering followed by regeneration, and Appomattox ends with an expression of an endless cycle of suffering.
Small and large events illustrate the inevitability of greed and bitterness: after the generous peace is signed, souvenir hunters loot Wilmer McLean’s house and beat him up when he resists; when a Union officer checks with Mrs. Lee to see that she has been treated with respect, that bitter woman, who had claimed that she and the General would have freed their slaves happily (and who also claims that some day the slaves will regret being freed) objects to having a black soldier guarding her house, and the Union officer switches the guard to a white soldier with apologies to her but not to him. The work’s title is carefully chosen: this opera is not about “the Civil War” as an historic event (there’s no mention of state’s rights, John Brown, the Fugitive Slave Law, territorial rivalries, the contradiction between the founder’s revolutionary ideology and their slave-holding, or any number of other causes and crises, and the atmosphere of the work justifies spending more time on Mary Todd Lincoln and a former slave discussing dreams than on Lincoln and Grant discussing strategy). It’s about one very specific incident, the battle at Richmond and the resulting surrender at Appomattox, and how that was supposed to be the end of the war, and how it was not. There’s a scene in the second half in which some of the black soldiers we’ve seen are now civil rights workers from a few decades ago, angrily pointing out that a hundred years after Appomattox the former slaves are still waiting for justice. This scene is the only one in rhyme, possibly because the most contemporary moment needs to be stylized for contemplative distance, or to capture the sense of chanting; it was also the only scene interrupted by spontaneous applause on opening night, in which I would have joined except the music was already playing for the next scene. The thought-provoking, smoothly managed juxtapositions of past and recent events and the shifts between depiction and meditation deserve lots of praise, since, to judge from the botched libretto of Dr. Atomic, it’s very difficult to bring off this sort of thing effectively.
The women who open and close the opera appear throughout, and my initial reaction was that I would have preferred a little less of them if it meant more time for the voices of ordinary soldiers (again, this absence was a major fault in Dr. Atomic, which found plenty of time to repeat the Kokopelli kitsch of the chanting “Native American child-care giver” but couldn’t bother scrounging up the thoughts of a single soldier on the ground, or indeed find any military man who wasn’t a posturing buffoon). Daguerreotypes of individual soldiers are carried in by the women in the opening and left on the front of the stage, and more appear on the backdrop later, but only two choruses come close to giving us their opinions and voices: one a sardonic, mournful soldier’s ballad sung by the Confederate men and the other a song of muted defiance sung by the black troops invading Richmond. These two choruses have a very distinct, catchy sound, and I’m assuming they’re based on actual Civil War songs (which the rest of the score is not; one advantage of Glass’s method – or of “the Philip Glass sound” – is that the Civil War is wrenched away from familiar associations with Dixie, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, slave spirituals, or even Max Steiner’s Tara and since what we hear is new it forces us to see things in a new way). These choruses also, in their immediate appeal and sense of comradeship, help show a little of the excitement and glamorous appeal that war undoubtedly possesses, and without this sense (brilliantly evoked by Whitman in the beginning of the Drum-taps section of Leaves of Grass) it’s too easy for us to shake our heads and wonder what they were thinking. You especially need this evocation to understand General Lee and his insistence on his honorable behavior.
I confess I have never admired General Lee. Perhaps I should make clear that, despite my frequent mentions of Boston, I am not some determined Yankee. I’m a native Californian, and though I wasn’t raised with any special sense of the southern myth, I did have a maternal great-grandmother from Virginia who watched her brother being shot dead by marauding Union forces when he ran to save the family horses (so the dead horses suspended on the stage, and rising again in the end, had a certain resonance for me); decades later, dying in Detroit, she felt she was dying in a foreign land. And I have also been the victim of racial harassment and even violence, so I don’t think I have an overly sentimental view of what oppression does to people. Others might hear the opera and have a more sympathetic view of Lee’s dilemma. He decides to surrender rather than switch to guerrilla warfare because his men will inevitably end up lawless, but in fact that’s pretty much what happened, in one of the great tragedies of American life, as the ideology of white supremacy defeated any advances in social justice the end of the war might have brought; the whole moonshine and magnolia farce of “the Lost Cause” is a thin decorative veneer over a corrupt society that used terrorism and twisted laws to promote its racist exploitation of the impoverished former slaves. If we were presented with a German military man steeped in the traditions of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven, who, however reluctantly, and motivated by love of the Rhineland’s beauty and a sense that he owed it to his birthplace, agreed to command the Nazi army (not “didn’t emigrate” or “reluctantly continued to function” but commanded the entire Nazi army), would we really be expected to sympathize with him? So how is Lee different?
There’s a scene early on (I assume this really happened) in which General Cobb protests Lee’s proposal that slaves be used to fight alongside white soldiers (unlike the segregated units of the Northern army). There are hints that Lee is considered wishy-washy on the subject of slavery. Lee’s response is that he is practical and his business is to win the war, but supporting the corrupt ideology of the weaker side does not seem like a practical act. (Also, though this point isn’t mentioned: if your slaves are fighting by your side, you can keep an eye, and a gun, on them; if they’re in a separate unit, there’s a good chance they would shoot their commanding officers and go join the Union forces, so I'm a little doubtful that Lee's stand is just about equal rights.) General Cobb is, in a sense, correct: if you are fighting an ideological war, and you ignore or subvert your ideology because it doesn’t work, then why are you fighting for that ideology in the first place? If Lee felt this way, and had the same conflict about slave ownership as many in the Revolutionary generation, then shame on him for not taking the offered leadership of the Union Army. Perhaps I just lack the egotism to think that a place is important because I happened to be born there, but some things are even more important than your blue remembered hills, and justice or even simple human decency might be two of those things.
During the intermission I overheard a few people saying they were disappointed (though the audience as a whole gave an enthusiastic ovation at the end). As a general principle I think you need to see where a piece ends up before you decide it took the wrong road getting there, but I wonder if for some people the word “opera” conveys a more limited meaning than it should. Appomattox does not build up to big, tension-releasing arias or to moments when the emotions, either tragic or triumphant, soar upwards through the action, and if that’s what you’re looking for in an opera, you’re better off approaching Appomattox as something like the St. Matthew Passion, or indeed not approaching it at all. During a lot of the first half I had the feeling that the music was building, and then building again, and not breaking through. It wasn’t until the end, with the mournful acknowledgement of the inevitable cycle of war and suffering, that I saw that the music’s stifled, circular feeling was the intended point. (Anyone who doubts Glass’s ability to say exactly what he wants to should listen to the bright sparkling piano music illustrating Grant’s migraine before his meeting with Lee, though I have to say that my migraines, described musically, would probably take the form of very bright repeated arpeggios – in other words, what people think of as “Philip Glass music.”) Dennis Russell Davies kept the music from sounding overly repetitive (though occasionally he did allow the orchestra to cover the singers.)
The only scene I found a bit disappointing musically was the siege of Richmond, with a chorus saying, “Ah!” repeatedly, though the staging, with refugees clutching treasured possessions coming down the ramp mid-stage and more refugees entering from the back, some dropping from exhaustion, was effective, as was the entire production generally. The costumes were historical but the sets were mostly abstract. The stage curtain was a beautiful abstract in grays and white, with some splashes of black, which opened directly onto the action (there is no overture). The silvery first set gives way to a stage-sized orange box which holds abstracted fences, maps, and mirrors as the act progresses. The second half set, with its pale grey and white, its pale squiggles, its scrawled phrases (Sic Semper Tyrannis, notably), and soldier’s portraits barely emerging from the background, made me think “Cy Twombly’s Civil War”, which gives you an idea both of its beauty and of the disorienting effect it could have on someone who came in expecting a history rather than a meditation.
Dwayne Croft as Lee and Andrew Shore as Grant were excellent, but the many Adler Fellows in the cast really shone: Rhoslyn Jones as a warm and sympathetic Mrs. Grant, Jeremy Galyon as Lincoln (it can’t be easy to put on the stovepipe hat and avoid caricature), Heidi Melton as Mrs. Lincoln and Kendall Gladen as her seamstress, and Elza van den Heever as the increasingly bitter and racist Mrs. Lee – it’s a tribute to her portrayal that when she walked on stage for her curtain call, smiling and young-looking, it took me a moment to realize who she was. Noah Stewart was powerful as T. Morris Chester, a black journalist who first reports on the fall of Richmond and then returns to describe how later years have failed the promised justice of the Union victory. And long-time SF Opera singer Philip Skinner made my skin crawl with the casual sanctimony and viciousness of Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and Klan member who murdered four Civil Rights workers.
If I haven’t mentioned any parallels with our sad times and our endless wars fought from ignorance and greed, it’s because there’s no need to; a meditation on the endless cycle of war and suffering and injustice is too obviously of our times, and of all times.