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Appomattox

The Civil War and All its Repercussions

It was at Appomattox Court House in rural Virginia in 1865 where General Robert E. Lee surrendered the confederate army to Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, formally ending the Civil War. With this surrender, Appomattox itself has come to represent a point in history where two warring factions made peace. And within Philip Glass’ ambitious, though sometimes uneven, opera, Appomattox is put forth as the point in history when the groundwork for future race relations and battles within America were laid.

Glass, the pre-eminent American contemporary composer best-known for his movie-scores in films like The Thin Red Line and his opera "Einstein on the Beach", brings his latest opera, “Appomattox", for its world premier to San Francisco Opera. With a libretto written by Academy and Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, a stage set by debut set designer Riccardo Hernandez, and a well-rounded cast of performers, this anticipated production seeks to merge historical forms and motifs with more contemporary musical structures and narratives.

“Appomattox” begins with a “Prologue” that relays the stories and backgrounds of the key political players during the Civil War -- Lee, Grant, and President Lincoln -- through the voices of their three respective wives. The curtain opens on these women in three simultaneous scenes just as the Civil War is coming to a close, with each wife relaying their concerns about the future, and the role their husband plays within the war. Ultimately, Glass’ “Appomattox” seeks to get below the surface of these men and this war, highlighting the other side of the Civil War and the under-belly where the racism that existed during the 19th Century seeped into America’s future.

With this “Appomattox” is a complex and innovative work that traverses time, its center sometimes shifting, and its central characters sometimes falling to the side to expose other significant characters that initially appear to stand at the periphery; characters such as T. Morris Chester (Noah Stewart), a black reporter for the Philadelphia Press, civil rights activists in Montgomery, Alabama, and Edgar Ray Killen (Philip Skinner), a Klu Klux Klan member who murdered several civil rights activists in 1964 and was finally convicted of this crime in 2005.

Despite these non-linear story-lines that expand and stretch traditional operatic narrative styles, this opera shines most within its larger ensemble scenes. For instance, at the opening, when all the wives slowly converge and where Glass’ signature rhythmic structures revel in a sonic ripple-effect, is where this opera succeeds in hammering home the larger issues and concerns at play within this opera. As the female performers’ voices become stronger, gradually unifying, there’s a sense of magnitude and grandeur that provides a sense of portends to the story being told.

By contrast, there are some points where the exposition goes on far too long, plodding and obvious when suggestion would suffice. Though innovative, the shift toward the future and the brittle narrative from Edgar Ray Killen, where the focus shifts away from Appomattox Court House and Lee and Grant, feels like a long digression. Also this movement through time makes the center of the opera appear uncertain -- is this a narrative about these commanders and the end of the war, or is this suddenly a story about racism and the Civil Rights movement within the twentieth century? Clearly, Glass intended this opera to be about both. In the end, the opera forcefully feeds its audience its themes, without allowing space for connections to be drawn.

Yes, this production can be frustrating, for all of those moments where voices soar and Glass’ music evokes emotion, there are an equal number of moments where this production still appears to be working through its kinks. But there is great potential to be found, and during “Appomattox’s” final week of performances -- and based on the strength of its performers, most notably, Adler Fellows, Noah Stewart, Heidi Melton, Rhoslyn Jones and Elza Van Den Heever -- this opera is still not to be missed.

Appomattox
Runs through October 24th
At the War Memorial Opera House
Tickets $15 - $275