An opera by Philip Glass/ Libretto by Christopher Hampton
Review by Janos Gereben
San Francisco, 10/05/07. "Philip Glass Appomattox: De Profundis, De Gustibus"
Most operas end tragically, but usually for a reason – a curse fulfilled, evil revenged, misdeeds punished. On rare occasions, operatic tragedy is graced with the ephemeral quality that makes "sense" of sorrow: catharsis. Then, there are a few works of unrelieved suffering, limitless depression, on the model of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, and its limitless pain and self-pity, where "For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow."
If you regard being stuck in a deep hole without hope of escape as a matter of exquisite profundity, you will surely hold Philip Glass’ Appomattox a paragon of recondite wisdom. For me, the San Francisco Opera premiere Friday night carried only a bleak, depressing message. With all its relevance to today, and ruthless reminders to the shame of the country’s civil-rights history, the opera doesn’t move; it pounds the audience with sorrow and anger about an unusually good, decent peace treaty, which should have inspired something vastly more positive than the opera’s sad message. The premiere received lukewarm applause (directed more to the performers than the composer and the production team) during a 4 1/2-minute curtain call.
Glass’ usual pulsing ostinato, moving glacially, underlines Christopher Hampton’s masterful dialogue (both straightforward and poetic), depicting Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender to the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant in a small Virginia town, obscenely ravaged by the Civil War.
A heavy, weighty subject, to be sure, but at the very beginning of the two-hour-long work, there is still a glimmer of affecting poignancy in the lyrics:
"War is always sorrowful
And this war the most sorrowful of all.
Never before has so much blood been drained
Ulysses says it never will again
This is the last time."
Soon, too soon, this turns into an unending dirge, all the way to the last words of the opera:
"And this is not the last time.
What has occurred must ever recur.
This will not be the last time.
This will not be the last time."
It is numbing to experience this Glass/Hampton lugubrious ode to despair and unrelieved sorrow. It is sorrow that permeates the air, in the words, in the music, in the image of black-clad women bewailing the world turned (and turning) upside down, as the blood of dead horses suspended in the air drips on them.
Sorrow, without a hint of catharsis, is a hard thing. In its all-consuming presentation here, it is also contrary to Aldous Huxley’s more measured and wiser dictum that "One third, more or less, of all the sorrow (one) must endure is unavoidable. It is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we must pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world wholly indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death." However, Huxley says, "The remaining two thirds of all sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary."
For Glass and Appomattox, sorrow – caused by hatred, killings, fratricidal wars, death and more death – is a unified, overwhelming fact, seemingly necessary as far as the universe is concerned, and it will be always so:
"What has occurred must ever recur.
This will not be the last time.
This will not be the last time."
From the affecting reminder at the beginning of the opera that war indeed will follow war, the ceaseless threnody of "woe, woe, woe is us" causes a steady weakening of artistic and emotional impact. Over the beat of endless pulsing in the music come time-traveling scenes of outrage from the future of this never-ending war, such as Edgar Ray Killen holding forth, unrepentant, about his role in the 1960s murder of civil rights workers – "A Commie and a Jewboy and a Nigger." This too will happen again, says Glass, wallowing in sorrow and despair.
And so, Mrs. Lincoln (Heidi Melton, in a short but outstanding turn), how was the opera? Amazingly good, if you can overlook the murk in which it is mired.
Dennis Russell Davies and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra bring every possible color and depth from the music largely lacking in those attributes. Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus sings with unprecedented magnificence, especially in their offstage segments. When the Chorus sings, unseen and a capella, Appomattox turns musically thrilling.
Dwayne Croft’s Robert E. Lee, dignified even at the most humiliating and painful time of his life, and Andrew Shore’s Grant, a simple man, without Lee’s elegance, but gracious and warmly human in victory, carry the brunt of the action. In a rare double lead of two baritones, the singers deliver great performances, bolstered by clear diction.
The production features a wealth of Adler Fellows, all doing well – Rhoslyn Jones as Julia Grant, Elza van den Heever as Mary Custis Lee, Ji Young Yang as Lee’s daughter, Kendall Gladen as Elizabeth Keckley – but the most outstanding performances come from Melton as Mary Todd Lincoln, Jeremy Galyon as an impressive, instantly sympathetic President Lincoln, and Noah Stewart, as T. Morris Chester, a black journalist during the Civil War period. (Chester, a historical figure, was born in Pennsylvania, son of a former slave, traveled to Liberia, where he founded a newspaper, and returned to the U.S. in 1863 to write about the war for the Philadelphia Press.)
Robert Woodruff’s direction is dynamic, at times excessively busy; the flash and thunder of explosions in nearby Richmond may be impressive, but only a couple of times, not when continuing. Riccardo Hernandez’s sets place symbolism ahead of good dramatic sense or visual aesthetics. There are those horses hanging in the air (like so many Magritte umbrellas and homburgs), and a jagged metallic show curtain in the center of a steel-and-glass set, signifying – perhaps – a cold and cruel world.
How cruel and sorrowful? Let the synopsis tell the end of the story: "As the generals depart, soldiers and civilians advance, and the McLean household is systematically ravaged by souvenir hunters. Rapacity and greed – harbingers of the future – violently intrude on the heels of a moment of historic reconciliation."
(You can never have enough historical minutiae: concurrently with tonight’s premiere, there is bizarre news about President U.S. Grant’s missing statue in Guinea Bissau being found, torn apart. For background: www.tinyurl.com/ysyr53.)