Today is a "double header" day for me. I just returned from seeing Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera and will shortly set off for Davies Symphony Hall to hear the second concert in András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas. My guess is that I shall be having thoughts about Appomattox for some time to come, but I wanted to set down my first impressions before shifting my attention to Beethoven.
Appomattox is, without a doubt, the best new work I have heard performed by the San Francisco Opera (and I have heard quite a few by now). The historical foundation will raise questions of comparison of other operas that take a political view of history, such as Doctor Atomic and, for that matter, Harvey Milk. One cannot ignore either the historical record nor the political implications when viewing such narratives. The challenge is to bring all the elements of opera to bear on a reflection of these issues, rather than simply a rendering of events.
In pre-premiere interviews Philip Glass made it clear that such reflection was important to him, important enough to be the most important element of the resulting libretto. Glass spoke from experience, having been born in Baltimore in 1937 when that city was still segregated. He thus approached this project from the point of view that the treaty signed at Appomattox put an end to hostilities between military forces but little more than that. This point of view was delivered by interrupting the staging of the Appomattox proceedings with a series of flash-forwards (which director Robert Woodruff called "car crashes"), allowing us to see the present day in the context of this past event.
The result was a forceful statement about racial equality delivered through accounts of episodes in the Civil Rights movement. One of these, dealing with the protest march on Montgomery, Alabama, drew spontaneous applause from the audience; but, unfortunately, that was not the last of the flash-forwards. That episode (which was probably about as close to a psychological car crash as one could get) was an extended aria, sung by Philip Skinner, taken from the words of Edgar Ray Killen, who is still serving a sixty-year sentence for his role in the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner. In the context of my remarks about Arthur Rimbaud earlier today, this is about as "outlaw" text as you can get. The words are so raw, chilling, and unrepentant that, for all the power of the music, we are unlikely to hear it as a recital piece. It took a lot of guts for Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton to decide to work with Killen's words and, for that matter, just as much guts for Skinner to work with Woodruff on how they would be delivered. Nevertheless, this is the moment when the inexorable logic of the narrative of the entire opera slams us in the face; and it is impossible to witness this staging and not feel moved.
What follows is not peace. We return to Appomattox Court House and witness the plunder of the room in which the peace treaty was signed, no one having thought of the need to protect such a significant site. Julia Grant (sung by Rhoslyn Jones) then returns to recapitulate her role in the Prologue. We are reminded, one last time, of the tragic nature of war and of its inevitability due to the inability of human nature to change.
Just for the record, the performance I attended was the third of a series of seven. I was very comfortable with this. Newspapers may be obsessed with covering opening nights; but I believe there is a lot to be said for letting a production "settle in" before viewing it. This is not to dismiss the contribution of the final dress rehearsal, but there is no substitute to performing before an audience. I suspect that the production is now pretty well "settled." I would encourage anyone to see any of the remaining four performances and I may even try to get over to see the opera a second time.