Compelling opera ‘Appomattox’ sings America

A scene from the Washington National Opera production of Appomattox. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO
A scene from the Washington National Opera production of Appomattox.
Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO

Appomattox is a compelling and majestic American opera.

With music by Philip Glass and libretto by Christopher Hampton, a greatly revised Appomattox, which includes a new second act, was given its world premiere this month by the Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the original having premiered in 2007.

This is a breakout work for the 78-year-old composer of 27 operas, who is the best known minimalist composer of our time.

Combining the end of the Civil War with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House and the last days of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the opera moves in its second act to the events surrounding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 100 years later.

The Civil War saw the participation of about 10,000 Jewish soldiers. Jews fought for their country, making invaluable contributions to ending the war.

As an aside, I am reminded that Grant, during the Civil War, issued the infamous order expelling Jews from Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. Protests led Lincoln to overturn the order. Many years later, as president, he attended the dedication of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, making a donation to demonstrate his contrition and sincerity.

Part of the opera’s narrative focuses on the deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi by KKK members.

These murders and others are a significant part of history as well as the opera’s libretto, reminding us of the shared dreams of Jews and African-Americans during that time.

In this opera, Glass returns to musical sources of the Civil War period and allows this music to proceed in its natural form, but accompanied by Glass’s unique palette of harmonies and progressions. This is stunning musically and moving to listen to, as weary, diverse soldiers of the Civil War open the opera singing in chorus in place of an overture.

The fine cast of women and women’s chorus follow this with a prologue built on Glass’ signature ostinato and passacaglia form to excellent effect in song and aria about ending war.

Glass is associated with endless repetition, yet here there was never a sense of that endless arpeggio. The composer demonstrated a new comfort level in writing opera; clearly he can write lyrically, being able to set any text. The plot, or absence of a plot, is used to good effect. The narrative is based on the idea of character importance and proximity to the important character: Abraham Lincoln, Grant, Lee, the Rev. Martin Luther King and others.

There are 13 main characters out of 51 characters. Here, ideas and characters roll into other scenes and characters.

History on the stage can be static, and there are a number of telling-the-story moments which are not effective and not necessary. Yet the drama of this powerful history is nothing less than a whirlwind we are swept into.

The effect of this opera is brilliant, in that we have this history fleshed out and given an inner light — but with music providing that light, making each character come to life, confronting us with this defining and troubling history of America.

For Americans, I cannot think of a more important subject which is well suited to opera. At the same time, this is painful as historic memory. We are still struggling to come to terms with these very themes in our time.

Francesca Zambello, the director of the Washington National Opera, deserves credit for her courage in bringing new works of music to this musically conservative city. She has placed the WNO on solid ground following the departure of the beloved Placido Domingo, the previous director.

I had to wonder about the insight into these historic themes by Glass, an American composer, and Hampton, a British librettist. This was balanced by the direction of Tazewell Thompson, who allowed the power of both the visual and musical to speak. Thompson, an internationally recognized director of opera, gave the work authenticity by bringing his passion for the subject; he is a 10th-generation descendant of slaves.

The cast and chorus clearly gave the performance their total commitment. Among the most gifted singers was Solomon Howard, outstanding in his dominant rich baritone, acting with dignity and energy.

Tom Fox was remarkable in his portrayal of two presidents Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Fox’s voice was clear and steady, even humorous in the demanding role, while endearing Johnson to the audience for his courage and colorful language.

David Pittsinger demonstrated fine acting and riveting singing in his portraits of a pained and humbled Lee and Edgar Ray Killen. Richard Paul Fink sang well in the role of Grant, creating a fine character, and capturing his relaxed and somewhat unaffected manner. Fink’s singing and physicality was a model of the singing actor.

Melody Moore (Julia Grant/Viola Liuzzo) possesses one of the most beautiful soprano voices at WNO, with remarkable range and lyrical warmth in her tone. Also outstanding was mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams (Elizabeth Keckley/Coretta Scott King). Soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird created fine character work and lyrical singing as Lady Bird Johnson and Mary Todd Lincoln.

The sets, lighting, costume, hair and makeup created a veritable portrait gallery on stage, thoroughly convincing and authentic.

Dante Santiago Anzolini agreed to conduct only four days prior to the beginning of rehearsals and proved to be a perfect choice, having previously conducted works by Glass. Anzolini brought forth fine ensemble playing from the orchestra — which performed admirably — without any weakness, never overshadowing the singers, and gave dynamic breath and intensity to Monday’s performance. The orchestra performed admirably.

A final note: the program has a pictorial history of the civil rights movement that includes King in Montgomery marching arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Appomattox, by Philip Glass, libretto by Christopher Hampton, presented by the Washington National Opera, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month.

Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of three Maryland congregations and is a composer of opera and other works.

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