Philip Glass has been called by some the greatest living composer. His new work, Appomattox, received a world premiere in its expanded and revised state by Washington National Opera on Saturday. It is bold, sweeping, dreamlike, socially relevant, and ultimately deeply spiritual.
Glass and British playwright Christopher Hampton have taken on one of the most complex and devastating eras in American history—the Civil War –- and, not to be satisfied with that, have paired it with a second act, transposing the time period to one hundred years later to 1965 and cobbling together key events and figures of the civil rights movement. This provides the creative team with an opportunity to double cast the main characters (notably Frederick Douglass/Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln/Lyndon Baines Johnson). The resonances from this doubling are uncanny and powerful.
I encountered Glass’ first monumental work with director Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach, at the Festival des Nations in Belgrade in 1976. It weighed in at a hefty 5-6 hours, yet I remember being mesmerized and emerged from the theatre feeling almost molecularly transformed. The show had captured Einstein’s “thought picture” of time moving so fast it stands still.
Now that was then, and the show Einstein was well seasoned, in the middle of a major festival circuit. Appomattox is stirring but raw, and many things are still being found. Notably Dante Santiago Anzolini, the conductor, stepped in at the last minute, after Dennis Russell Davies had to withdraw due to an accident, and, in short order, learned five-hundred pages of music. But this is the kind of backstage drama that is going to launch Appomattox to a kind of legendary status.
Speaking of legends, it’s always a gamble to have so many historical figures portrayed on stage without the characters seeming wooden or broadly brushed caricatures. These performers rose to the occasion with both appropriate gravitas and nuanced physical portrayals. Tom Fox held perhaps the biggest burden but managed to impress with two convincing, very different physical portrayals: Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Fox let us into the parallel troubled struggles of these two very different personalities, beleaguered by a nation so angrily divided yet tasked with leading them through sweeping social change.
Bass Baritone David Pittsinger is one of those singer-actors who ably pulls off any dramatic challenge or musical style. His portrayal of Robert E. Lee profoundly evoked the essence of this noble yet ambivalent leader. He is supremely able to negotiate Philip Glass’ tricky poly-rhythms and time signatures. By giving emphasis to a phrase with a well-timed strut or gesture, he helps us experience the dramatic movement within the musical structure. I felt the man Lee lived in his saddle and wore his military dress garb with distinction and honor. In the second act, Pittsinger completely disappeared with his wheel-bound, frail yet embittered portrayal of white supremacist and killer Edgar Ray Killen. I continue to learn more from this singer-actor than just about anyone else on the music-theatre stage today.
Soloman Howard has, in many ways, grown up on the Kennedy Center stage and with this company. Seeing him take on the dual role of two African-American pillars and game changers in this, his own city, brought tears to my eyes. As Frederick Douglass, he has an all too short but convincing scene, summoned to visit President Lincoln and suffering the indignity of nearly being turned away at the gate. (How little has changed after all.) In the second act, he portrays Martin Luther King, Jr. with all the fire of that great leader.
Frederick Ballentine also stands out with two wonderful stirring portraits of activists. As T. Morris Chester, Freeman and Philadelphia African American journalist in the 1860’s, and then the civil rights leader John Lewis, he was able to show the arc throughout history of the seething drive to overcome the inequities and the lack of retribution for murders of his people that sadly continues.
The most touching relationship on stage was that between Melody Moore playing Julia Grant and Richard Paul Fink as her husband Ulysses. Moore is totally convincing as a Civil War marm, strong as a rock physically and morally, and her partnership with Fink, as the embattled General who has struggled out of abject poverty and street smarts to become the major problem solver of the war, is all in the details of their crafted choices and demonstration of their underlying tender devotion.
The creators have thankfully not made this a man’s opera which might have been tempting to do. The women as a group are strongly represented, although I might quibble with the characterizations of Mary Todd Lincoln and Mary Custis Lee, but certainly the women have the most stirring musical moments in the whole opera. The opening number, “War is always sorrowful,” serves as a kind of anthem that guides the work thematically. Anne-Carolyn Bird, Kerriann Otaño, and Crystal E. Williams join Moore in a quite lovely quartet, and the rest of the women become a chorus, representing women throughout history as the true victims of war.
How brilliant to have the Washington National Opera give the creators the opportunity to substantially revise this opera. It is deliciously big in its scope, which is the achievement of a Glass opera, but to my mind some problems are still to be ironed out.
November 14 – November 22, 2015
Washington National Opera
at The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $300
Pre-show, Hampton mentioned that there was more “poetry” in the way of speaking during the civil war, but the dialogues from that period seemed lifted directly and did not seem to “scan” well musically, or perhaps it was just from an earlier iteration. In the second act –- whether it was Martin Luther King’s oratory skills, Viola Liuzzo’s “plain talk” as a liberal caught up in the civil rights movement, or the expletives and crude language of LBJ – the libretto worked better musically than the writing of most of the Civil War act. Glass and Hampton have broken new ground in their collaboration in attempting more dramatic “encounters” in the way the piece is structured, but, musically speaking, these encounters can sometimes feel more run-on recitatives and might benefit from more repetition or rhyme to let the voices “soar” as arias.
There are many wonderful choices that work stupendously in this important collaborative work. Director Tazewell Thompson has wrestled something like a giant alligator with this show, so big and powerfully muscular is the work. How beautifully he has set up the beginning with the simple haunting image of the boys in blue lined up across the stage singing the exquisite setting of the traditional song “Tenting Tonight.” He has got the vision for sure, but now might solve little things such as bringing attention and creativity (in the way he did for Lost in the Stars) to things like the set changes.
Conductor Anzolini has pulled off the impossible and manages this full orchestra well, deserving the musicians’ appreciative rapping on their stands at his entrance. Giving all the singers their full confidence of phrasing will come in the following performances.
Set designer Donald Eastman avoided chasing around time and place and instead serves up a single, almost chaste “white house” two-storied single structure which, elegant in its simplicity, suggests a southern mansion, the president’s home and office, a court house, and Baptist church. This allows lighting designer Robert Wierzel a clean palette to create fluid layers of atmosphere that take us from the smoky campsites of the union soldiers to the sparkling drawing room of President Lincoln entertaining at his second inaugural, and to the famed courthouse where the war was conceded. Warm soft stage pictures are juxtaposed with sharply angled boxes of light to capture the inner monologues of key Civil War figures and then leaping into the twentieth century to delineate a chilling jail cell dialogue between two key white racists.
Costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh were well researched and helped anchor us in time and space. A picayune criticism is I don’t remember so many hats in the mid to late sixties, certainly not in Washington.
Nonetheless, Appomattox is an opera for this city. In the audience were historians, judges, statesmen, activists and others who have lived and breathed the swirl of history around us. Philip Glass himself was raised up the road in Baltimore and soaked up history in the countryside around him. There was a certain ether sitting in the house on Saturday night that I felt this night was important.
So important you don’t want to miss this. With only 5 performances left, all scheduled this week November 16, 18, 20, 21 and a final matinee on November 22, you really deserve to be part of this work. And it’s not over until you stand and cast your vote for Appomattox and art like this being part of our city.
Appomattox . Music by Philip Glass . Libretto by Christopher Hampton . Conducted by Dante Santiago Anzolini . Stage direction by Tazewell Thompson . Featuring Tom Fox, Soloman Howard, David Pittsinger, Richard Paul Fink, Melody Moore, Robert Brubaker, Frederick Ballentine, Anne-Carolyn Bird, Chrystal E. Williams, Kerriann Otaño, Timothy J. Bruno, Robert Baker, Aleksey Bogdanov, Leah Hawkins, Dane Suarez . Set Design: Donald Eastman . Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel . Costume Design: Merrily Murray-Walsh . Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.