Wednesday, November 18, 2015

‘Appomattox’ Review: The War We’re Still Fighting: Note for Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

In Philip Glass’s opera, Robert E. Lee’s surrender was only the start of the struggle for equality in America.

Robert Baker as Edward Alexander, David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee, Aleksey Bogdanov as John Aaron Rawlins and Richard Paul Fink as Ulysses S. Grant. ENLARGE
Robert Baker as Edward Alexander, David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee, Aleksey Bogdanov as John Aaron Rawlins and Richard Paul Fink as Ulysses S. Grant. PHOTO: SCOTT SUCHMAN/WNO
Philip Glass’s opera “Appomattox,” which had its premiere in 2007, was not just about the end of the Civil War, but rather about how that 1865 encounter, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was just the beginning of a whole new battle. In the opera’s revised version, having its world premiere at the Washington National Opera, Mr. Glass and his librettist, the playwright Christopher Hampton, make that point more explicitly. Their new Act II, set in 1965, introduces more characters, including Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, to tell another chapter in the story of race relations in America—the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A series of vignettes, the opera is subtle, perhaps too subtle in an era when “Hamilton” on Broadway has changed the stakes about how music theater can bring history to life.
Washington National Opera
Through Nov. 22
For the new version, the creators compressed the Civil War story into Act I, taking out some of the vivid 20th-century events that depicted the continuing struggle and moving others into Act II. Act I now seems flat without them, its overwhelming musical environment one of exhaustion after years of war. A quartet for the wives— Julia Grant, Mary Custis Lee and Mary Todd Lincoln—plus Mrs. Lincoln’s ex-slave seamstress and friend, Elizabeth Keckley, sets that tone with its slow mournfulness, and Mr. Glass’s darkly transparent orchestrations are mostly retiring and sympathetic, with little of his trademark propulsiveness.
Soloman Howard as Martin Luther King Jr.ENLARGE
Soloman Howard as Martin Luther King Jr.PHOTO: SCOTT SUCHMAN/WNO
There are a handful of such lyrical set pieces; another is Julia Grant’s poignant aria about how her husband is not really a butcher. (Melody Moore, a luxuriantly voiced soprano, was imposing; as Gen. Grant, Richard Paul Fink sounded strained and harsh.) Otherwise, the vocal writing is set for maximum intelligibility, more recitative than aria, leaning on Mr. Hampton’s compelling text without musically illuminating individual characters. This restrained style works best in the courtliness of the surrender conversations between Grant and Lee, who transact their endgame as gentlemen, all passion seemingly spent. 
Matters perk up considerably in Act II, with the arrival of Lyndon B. Johnson (baritone Tom Fox), a whirlwind of salty language, uncouth behavior, and arm-twisting tactics that get the job—passing the Voting Rights Act—done. His scenes with Gov. George Wallace (a splendidly slimy Aleksey Bogdanov) and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover (a brash Robert Brubaker) are hilarious. By contrast, Martin Luther King, sung with luminous authority by bass Soloman Howard, is a plaster saint. Composer and librettist tried to suggest King’s distinctive preacherly eloquence, but the smooth surface of their creation, even with the original setting of lines from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” doesn’t evoke the rhythm of his speech or transmit its full weight and power.
Tom Fox as Lyndon B. Johnson.ENLARGE
Tom Fox as Lyndon B. Johnson. PHOTO: SCOTT SUCHMAN/WNO
The most striking musical elements of Act II came from the 2007 version: “The Ballad of Jimmie Lee Jackson,” an original protest ballad sung here by the eloquent tenor Frederick Ballentine, recounts the murder that inspired the Alabama marches for voting rights. Its vivid language, catchy tune, and infectious chorus—“A hundred years and we ain’t free / We’re marching to Montgomery”—even upstage King. Another gripping holdover is the jailhouse soliloquy ofEdgar Ray Killen, who, in a poisonously shocking performance by David Pittsinger, describes in graphic detail the 1964 murder of the three civil-rights workers in Mississippi that he orchestrated. It is now inserted into an imagined 2011 encounter with Trooper James Fowler (a strongTimothy J. Bruno), who was belatedly convicted of killing Jimmie Lee Jackson. Still, a pair of octogenarian Klansmen reveling in their unrepentant racism seems a bit passé in view of all that’s happened in the past few years. Sometimes one can be too subtle.
Donald Eastman’s simple, two-tiered white set, suggesting the veranda of a Southern house, provided the flexibility for the different locations, while Merrily Murray-Walsh’s somber period costumes and Robert Wierzel’s shadowy lighting reinforced the elegiac quality of Act I and the continuing unrest of Act II. Tazewell Thompson’s efficient directing stressed realism, and conductor Dante Santiago Anzolini supplied firm if sometimes plodding direction from the pit. The singers played double roles, and their Act II incarnations were usually more gripping: Mr. Pittsinger, for example, was stiff rather than noble as Robert E. Lee. Standouts included Mr. Ballentine, who also was T. Morris Chester, the black newspaperman who bears exultant witness to the fall of Richmond and then closes Act I with a chilling description of an 1873 massacre of black men in Louisiana, and Chrystal E. Williams, portraying a vigilant Coretta Scott King as well as Keckley. The WNO chorus was excellent, especially when supplying the rumbling voice of defiance.
Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.

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