Historically challenged

War and peace in Philip Glass's Appomattox
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Oh, Abraham
Photo by Terrence McCarthy

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The central scene in Appomattox, Philip Glass's new opera now world-premiering with San Francisco Opera, is the fateful meeting of generals Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) and Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft) in a private residence in the Virginia town of Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered on behalf of the South on April 9, 1865, officially bringing the catastrophic Civil War to a dainty close. The opera's lucid libretto (by British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton) faithfully instills the gravitas, human drama, and personal idiosyncrasy associated with that eminently chivalrous encounter between formal enemies. And with two excellent performances from Croft and Shore, deft staging by renowned director Robert Woodruff, and not least Glass's score — with its immediately recognizable orchestral voice in a distinctly somber mood — it's a meeting that manages to be rather riveting.

That's also why it has to be undercut, and this the opera shrewdly does, though with mixed success. It's not just that the story of two great men with the weight of history on their shoulders will not do by itself — not least because the Civil War is not the story of two people, or even three, if you count the imposing figure of Abraham Lincoln (Jeremy Galyon). As Appomattox's decentering portrait makes clear (in scenes flashing forward as far as the civil rights era, which literally burst in on the proceedings at Appomattox Court House), the Civil War belongs for better or worse to many more people, then and now. The opera's seminal scene must be undercut because history would soon come to mock the grandeur and moment of Grant and Lee's highly civilized encounter, made on the heels of their brilliant mutual orchestration of unprecedented devastation and bloodshed.

Thus, Hampton's libretto (coming from a skilled dramatist with a global curiosity) is aware of not only the concentrated power of the intimate drama at the opera's center but also the quasi-reactionary limits it threatens to impose on the work's greater engagement with history, which is to say, with the burden of the past. And so, even before broaching the legacy of white racism and black struggle, the opera comes bracketed with the voices of women. In the semiabstract and fiercely deromanticized opening panorama, it's the women who carry the refrain "War is always sorrowful," attributed to Grant by his wife, Julia (Rhoslyn Jones).

Glass's score — too recognizable at times but nonetheless mood altering in its characteristically descending bass lines, unduutf8g strings, neobaroque arpeggios, and delicately soaring melodies — rolls on just as solemnly and purposefully, rising and falling like bated breath, anxious with anticipation and weary with private and collective grief. Racing to a few notable climaxes, the score's sad and sinister tone is broken by alternately haunted and ecstatic choral sections. Elsewhere, in a layering of period texture, a marching song lends poignant revelry to Lee's first entrance: "Many are the hearts that are looking for the light, hoping to see the dawn of peace."

Peace is not in the cards. Immediately following the surrender scene, Woodruff's mise-en-scène deconstructs the mismatch of old-fashioned civility and confident optimism at the dawn of the industrial age and its refurbished caste system. A frenzy of greedy souvenir hunting leaves the owner of the house where the surrender happened dazed and helpless as his fellow Americans strip it bare, leaving only an empty frame through which the future rolls in on a shiny wheelchair in the solitary figure of Ku Kluxer and convicted murderer Edgar Ray Killen (Philip Skinner). An old man spending his last years in prison for his part in the notorious 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, Killen may be finished, but what he stands for is not.

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