Monday, November 16, 2015

Appomattox, Take Two

In my previous blog, I noted that technology moves forward but human nature does not. One could add that laws make progress but human nature does not. In just the past year Baltimore, Ferguson, Charleston and university campuses in Missouri have been the most visible examples of how far we remain from securing equal treatment for all our citizens. No wonder Philip Glass saw fit to revise his 2007 opera Appomattox to emphasize that in terms of race relations little has changed in the United States since the end of the Civil War. The new version of Appomattox premiered Saturday at Washington National Opera.

Not having seen the San Francisco performance, I cannot compare the two versions, but one critic described the first take of Appomattox as an "epic-proportioned opera, sensational in its conception, drama and music that had one sitting on the edge of one’s opera seat being witness to history." Much of this could be said of the revised version shown Saturday in Washington. While the production did not have me sitting on the edge of my seat with a particularly sensational conception, it had me sitting back and contemplating.

The opera starts with the final days of the Civil War and the surrender of Confederate Army commander Robert Lee to Union General Ulysses Grant in the village of Appomattox, Virginia. It then moves to a post-war meeting between President Abraham Lincoln and African-American activist Frederick Douglass in which Douglass tells the newly re-elected president he would like to see “voting rights for all free men of color.”

Generals Lee and Grant discuss their correspondence with aides.                Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO
One hundred years later in the second and most revised act of Appomattox we are in the midst of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and African-Americans are still fighting for their voting rights.   

Then the opera turns into a political farce in which President Lyndon B. Johnson cleverly handles political adversaries while ridiculing their small-mindedness behind their backs. As it moves to more recent years, Appomattox opens the door to a private conversation between two inmates (real-life characters) convicted of racially-motivated murders committed decades before. One, now dead, got away with a negligible sentence. The other, a former Ku Klux Klan member, will spend his life in jail, but scorns the punishment because for him no price is too high in defense of white supremacy - a state of mind not much different from suicide bombers. 

A group of women calling for the end of the strife and healing of the nation in the final scene concludes the epic on a soothing note.  

The first part of Appomattox struck me as the more operatic and colorful than the second. It opens with a gorgeous all-male choral piece sung by soldiers tired of war. Back home women lament the bloodshed. General Lee and his Union counterpart Grant are juxtaposed on the stage, against the background of huge Confederate and Union flags as each contemplates the other's moves. Their correspondence as well as direct communication are gentlemanly throughout, the interest of American people upmost on their minds. 

The second part felt like a surrealist docu-drama in which historic characters and events presented on the stage blend with those from current news reports, as they would in a dream. You could be listening to Martin Luther King or a reverend in Charleston's historic black church after the racially motivated killing of nine worshipers. The historic marches in Selma were sparked by the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the 26-year-old civil rights marcher at the hands of a state trooper.  Today's 
Black Lives Matter movement was sparked by the deaths of several black men at the hands of white policemen.  As you watch the former, you think of the latter.  As the opera points out, it took much longer to get the voting rights law enacted than it did to get it repealed.  

The music is a mature and refined Philip Glass, with his signature minimalist style still clearly recognizable in the repetition of phrases that underline the text, or stand alone in their eloquence. The choral passages are unanimously gorgeous, at times angelic and ethereal, like the one that ends the opera, or steeped in the African-American tradition: spirituals and songs like The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Ol' Man River.  Glass even produced his own version of the Civil War anthem We Shall Overcome that brought to mind the original without imitating it.

The singers were mostly superb and well suited for the characters they portray. As the opera moves through the time, some of them could conveniently appear in two different roles without being recognized. Bas-baritone David Pittsinger was the epithome of a southern gentleman when portraying General Lee and sinister as murderer Edgar Ray Killen later on. I could not tell that it was the same singer.

The shining star among his equals was Washington's own Soloman Howard, a graduate of the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program who has already debuted at the Metropolitan Opera. The 33-year-old bass is the only singer I can think of with the right stature and enough charisma to bring Martin Luther King 
to life. He also appeared as Frederick Douglass in the first act.

Soloman Howard as MLK in Appomattox            Photo: Scott Suchman for WN
Appomatox is packed with energy and powerful characters, but also (and I know I am going to be crucified for saying this) with occasional longueurs, the recitativi that drag it down like millstone.  In the traditional opera, parlando segments serve to speed up the action and can be as memorable and haunting as any aria. Like this dialogue between Tosca and Scarpia: 

Scarpia: "Or su Tosca, parlate!
Tosca: "Non so nulla."

Or Germont's rebuke: "Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende qui pur nell'ira la donna offende."

Or Eboli's outrageous shriek:  "Voi la regina amate!"

In the modern opera, these half-sung-half-spoken conversations, or monologues as the case may be, sound monotonous and if they go on for too long can become a crashing bore. Not only do they always sound the same, but the voice or the intonation raised in the wrong place or at the wrong time makes me wince. I cannot tell if it is the English language, or a lack of effort, or the belief that modern music should not concern itself with
appeal, but few of the modern recitativi - if they are still called that - are memorable. And while they are somewhat tolerable in a staged performance, it is hard to imagine that anyone wants to listen to them at home on CD.

One solution Philip Glass and his librettist Christopher Hampton have found to overcome the tedium is the use of witticism and irreverence in the text, for example in LBJ's conversation with U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Another trick is following LBJ's "televised speech" with an especially attractive instrumental passage.  Still, the sing-song talk combined with Donald Eastman's unchanged set of pillared facade with a long balcony, creates a static impression, turning the opera 
into an oratorio at times.

Overall, Glass and Hampton have created a quintessentially American work, focused on voting rights, but sending a powerful message about the legacy of racism that has plagued the world's leading democracy since its inception. The accompanying photo exhibit A Journey from Civil War to Civil Rights is a helpful preview, especially for those of us who missed that chapter in the history book.

During the 1960's rights movement in the United States, I lived in eastern Europe where the assassination of Martin Luther King received no more attention than the deaths of Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Che Guevara or Haile Selassie. When I came to live in the U.S. capital 20 years later, it was with the conviction that racism and segregation were forgotten things of the past. It took years to realize that racial tensions were not just lingering here and there, but seething under the surface all this time to reach a new boiling point this year.

Washington is probably a better place than San Francisco to introduce an opera such as Appomattox, but the work should be seen by more ordinary Americans than the limited number of shows in D.C. can accommodate. Let's hope that WNO records one of the performances for a nationwide television broadcast in the near future, say during the upcoming dreary months of January and February when many people like to stay at home.

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