When Philip Glass last broached the theme — in the "Rome Section" of the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, that Ozymandian Gesamtkunstwerk Robert Wilson never completed — civil war represented a universal condition. Wilson's extraterrestrial vision took in spaceships and a cast of characters that included Hercules, Garibaldi, Snow Owl and dancing Hopi Indians. The Confederate general Robert E. Lee was on hand, too, glimpsed through a porthole, as was Abraham Lincoln, who levitated and then tipped to a horizontal position, floating offstage like a spaceship in his own right.
Now San Francisco Opera has unveiled Appomattox, the latest Glass opera, and Lincoln is back, his feet firmly on the ground, dismayed with good cause at the unending apocalypse. Lee appears, too, along with his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, who fought him at the devastating final encounter outside the Virginia village of Appomattox Court House and then met with him there to negotiate the peace.
An intramural American War and Peace? Not exactly. Christopher Hampton's two-act libretto places the battles during intermission, which epitomizes the essentially anti-operatic character of the proceedings. Rather than tellinga a story, Appomattox strings together waxworks vignettes from the history books, taking much of the dialogue verbatim from the sources.
"Greeted in Richmond by a crowd of newly freed black laborers," reads a typical passage in the synopsis, "Lincoln raises one who had dropped to her knees, saying she must kneel only to God, in thanks for her liberty." The enactment on the stage is just as flatly matter-of-fact. The awkward meeting of the generals has more texture, but not all that much. Where Glass does lift off is in choral sections much in the spirit of the Bach passions or Greek tragedy. Weak as narrative or documentary costume drama, Appomattox is strong as prophecy, dream and reflection. Occasional Act II excursions into the twentieth century only underscore the static (indeed ecstatic) quality. Really, this is an oratorio in all but name.
The solemn prologue to Act I takes the form of a cantata of mourning, led by the wives of Grant, Lee and Lincoln, introduced one by one. However terrible the war, the women endure it (or strive to) as the war that will end war. The evening closes in much the same way but in a mood of virtually Buddhist pessimism. The veil of wishful illusion is gone. What happened before will happen again.
These bookends have a tragic eloquence. So, on occasion, does the material in between. The Civil War song "Tenting Tonight," sung offstage by black soldiers, brings the house to a hush. The hurtling passacaglia for the evacuation of Richmond conveys the general panic with startling force. Throughout, Glass blends his colors with uncommon finesse, deepening a somber palette with accents of silver star-shine. With respect to rhythm, a certain monotony comes with the minimalist agenda, yet he springs some surprises, too, injecting new bursts of energy at the start of each large musical paragraph.
Conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a longtime Glass champion, made the most of such moments, proving as much a wizard with pulse as with timbre and balance. In a cast numbering more than two dozen soloists, seven members of the company's young-artists program assumed principal roles. Rhoslyn Jones, Elza van den Heever, Ji Young Yang, Heidi Melton and Kendall Gladen, distinctive and assured in the prologue as in their later scenes, sounded destined for roles ranging from Pamina to Elektra. As a black journalist, Noah Stewart had two soliloquies to deliver, the first euphoric, the second despairing, each equally immediate and vibrant. Jeremy Galyon did well by Lincoln's under-written part.
Among the full-fledged professionals, Philip Skinner gave diabolical intensity to the unrepentant Edgar Ray Killen, a real-life Klansman convicted of murder, heard from in his own hateful words. By contrast, both Andrew Shore's Ulysses S. Grant and Dwayne Croft's Robert E. Lee seemed restrained to a fault — not that theirs is the most expressive music.
The production, directed by Robert Woodruff with spare, utilitarian sets by Riccardo Hernandez and period costumes by Gabriel Berry, illustrates the proposition that war is hell in a few desultory gestures. Orderlies wheel in carts full of severed limbs, which they toss into an unseen pit. Dead horses are hoisted into midair. With grinding grandeur, a house flies down very slowly for the meeting of Grant and Lee. When they retire, the souvenir-hunters sweep in and strip it not just to the fabric walls but to its frame.