Thursday, October 25, 2007


My first post about Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera was written in haste, because I felt it was necessary to set down my thoughts before going off to hear the second concert in András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas. However, I concluded with some remarks as to whether or not the production had "settled" and suggested that I would try to see the opera a second time. I was therefore glad to find myself with a ticket to the final performance last night, not only because of the question of how well the production had "converged" but also because I think it is terribly unfair that new works end up getting reviewed on the basis of a single performance experience. The evening also provided me with an opportunity to hear the music conducted by Assistant Conductor Sara Jobin. I have had little (if any) exposure to Ms. Jobin's work. However, I caught the tail end of her pre-performance talk the last time I saw this opera; and she won me over at a level of understanding with her concluding remarks about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This is probably the institution that best "gets" that "Civil War Without End" message that I stressed in my last post. I learned about SPLC several decades ago, when I first started donating to their Klanwatch effort; and they continue to be a valuable resource for my wife's teaching activities. I am now happy to report that I was as pleased with Ms. Jobin's command of Philip Glass' score as I was with her politics!

Having dealt with one relatively peripheral matter, let me now turn to the substance of that score, which Ms. Jobin conducted as well as Glass expert Dennis Russell Davies at the first performance I attended. I do not think I read a single review of Appomattox that, at some point, did not invoke the noun "monotony," or one of its variants, in describing Glass' music. I am not going to single out any of those critics, but I think they all need to be haunted by the ghost of Igor Stravinsky haranguing them on the importance of being a good listener. Yes, ostinato plays a significant role in the grammar of Glass' compositions; but ostinato does not imply monotony. No one seems to have a problem when Beethoven uses it as heavily as he does in his sixth symphony; so why must every self-professed expert get on Glass' case about it? If we really want to get at how we should be listening to this music, we need to begin by asking what that music is. Only then can we decide whether or not we want to pick a fight with the composer over his grammatical style.

Simply put, the score for Appomattox is a dirge, very much in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary sense of "a slow mournful song." Having raised Stravinsky's ghost, at this point I think it is important to note that Stravinsky once composed a ballet score that took the concept of a dirge and sustained it for over half an hour. The ballet was "Orpheus;" and over that sustained period the orchestra "raises its voice" only once, at the moment when Orpheus looks back and Eurydice is pulled back to Hades. The last time I heard this music performed, that one moment scared the hell out of me. From this experience I realized that a dirge is all about the tension that comes with trying to control grief and that the release of that tension has to be managed scrupulously in order for the music to have the strongest dramatic impact.

I do not know how familiar Glass is with this particular ballet, but there is no doubt in my mind that he understands this nature of the dirge. It is all about tension and release, and ostinato provides a device through which Glass controls our feelings of tension. As far as I am concerned, he does this very well, well enough to expand Stravinsky's half-hour scale to two-and-a-half hours; and if none of the critics I read seem to have "gotten" this point, then the loss is theirs! In this respect I think it is also important to note that the entire cast (along with the orchestra) seems to have "gotten" this sense of tension and release to such an extent that some of the more obvious instances (such as the passing of Grant's migraine) almost (but not quite) intrude on the subtle undercurrents of the music.

Lest some readers think that I am theorizing excessively in defense of Glass, the dirge theme of this opera confronts us in the staging of the Prologue. Having opened with the "tragic perspective" of the Civil War through the words of Julia Grant, Mary Curtis Lee, and Mary Todd Lincoln, we are then confronted with a full chorus of women in mourning, each of whom places a portrait of a fallen soldier at the foot of the platform on which most of the action will take place. Those portraits remain there for the entire opera. They are the ghosts of the fallen, bearing witness to the final blood sacrifice at Richmond, the diplomatic dance of resolving a surrender, and those flash-forwards that remind us of how little was settled at Appomattox. We then conclude with Julia Grant reminding us once again of the tragic nature of the war, set now in the context of Lincoln's pessimistic observation that human nature dictates that what occurs will eventually reoccur (as those flash-forwards have already demonstrated).

To the extent that dirge is also about "disciplined understatement," I think it is important to credit Christopher Hampton for the libretto. There are those who seemed to feel that the text was too "talky;" but it was actually extremely spare. The result was that every word mattered and, to return to my approach to Stravinsky, voices are raised seldom but always with devastating impact, particularly in that final solo based on the words of Edgar Ray Killen.

So last night the curtain descended on Appomattox for the final time. What will happen now? Contemporary operas have a hard time getting programmed. Look at how long it has taken for the Metropolitan Opera to get around to performing Satyagraha. This opera is too important for such neglect. I just hope that the directors of other American opera companies "get the message" about Appomattox and keep it from fading into the obscurity of so many other recent works.

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