Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

On the courthouse lawn

October 14, 2007

Andrew Shore as Ulysses S. Grant and Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

On Sunday I caught the third performance of Appomattox, the new opera from Philip Glass currently on stage with the San Francisco Opera. It is an ambitious, intelligent work with numerous strengths that will likely outweigh its weaknesses in the long run. This two act work concerns events leading up to and during the surrender of Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA, in 1865. However, there is a lot of other stuff going on or at least Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton want to draw out far broader cultural and historical implications from these events than the actual elements of narrative may immediately suggest. Or, in other words, ending the war is easy while waging the peace is hard.

The second act consists of a single extended scene where Lee and Grant negotiate the terms of the Confederacy's surrender, which Lincoln and Grant have insisted be generous to help establish and sustain a post-war peace. These exchanges are interrupted multiple times by various vignettes and characters who reflect on events in the civil rights movement throughout the following century and a half. The last of these interludes consists of a racist tirade from Edgar Ray Killen as he recounts his role in the murder of three civil rights workers during the 1960s. The point here is that the horrors of history and war can’t be easily unraveled in the terms of a peace, even if that peace is a generous, fair, and respectful one. What is perhaps most remarkable about Appomattox is how bleak and negative its world view is. Not that it may not be true, but agency is not on the agenda here. Ironically, Appomottox may be the anti-Adriana Mater, Kaija Saariaho’s dark opera about redemption and forgiveness in the face of war and unspeakable trauma.

The music is quintessential late-Glass, which given the unfair assumptions much of the public hold about Glass’ work, may be the biggest obstacle to the works wider acceptance. Which is a shame considering how great music is here. The performances were quite good including Dwayne Croft as Lee and Andrew Shore as Grant. But, if the performances prove anything, it is the overall strength of the Adler Fellows program since virtually all of the other roles in the work are held by current or former Fellows who are uniformly great. Rhoslyn Jones’ turn as Julia Dent Grant almost steals the show as do Elza van den Heever’s Mary Custis Lee and Heidi Melton’s Mary Todd Lincoln. The San Francisco Opera Chorus gets several opportunities to shine. Dennis Russell Davies expertly led the orchestra in his own San Francisco Opera debut.

The production is modern and contains some intriguing visual elements including four life-size horse carcasses that hang from above throughout much of the First Act and return at the end of the Second. The look is mostly minimal but the costumes are period. Director Robert Woodruff actually keeps everyone moving without cluttering up the stage with needless activity. Probably the biggest problem with the work is in the needlessly wordy libretto, which could use a little retooling especially in Act 1 where things start to drag about half way through. Appomattox is not about poetry as much as it is about ideas and the weight of history. And certainly there is art and beauty in that.


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