‘Appomattox’ Revised: Two one-act operas squashed into one

‘Appomattox’ Revised: Two one-act operas squashed into one

Washington National Opera’s uneven “second world premiere” of re-tooled Phillip Glass opera not nearly ready for prime time on opening night.

"Appomattox." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Soloman Howard) addresses mourners in remembrance of slain Jimmie Lee Jackson. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2015 – A palpable excitement crackled through the near-capacity audience at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday evening. On tap: The Washington National Opera’s “main event” was “the second world premiere” of “Appomattox,” a 2007 opera by American composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton.

We’re sure WNO, its loyal DC audience, its occasional patrons and a cadre of the curious and interested were looking forward to a special operatic happening, made all the more appealing by its American storyline, its contemporary political topic and its still-living composer and librettist, a rarity until recently in the world of opera, American style.

General Lee (David Pittsinger) negotiating his Confederate Army's surrender to General Grant (Richard Paul Fink). (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO).
Gen. Lee (David Pittsinger) negotiating his Confederate Army’s surrender to Gen. Grant (Richard Paul Fink). (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO).

The entire production is uncannily well-timed, launched as it has been in the nation’s capital on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end in 1865. Judging from its opening night reception, “Appomattox” was a resounding hit with the excited crowd, which literally buzzed with anticipation prior to the conductor’s opening downbeat. In the days to come, we’re sure most critics will agree with the audience. The problem is, this critic does not.

The original version of “Appomattox” started out just prior to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s formal surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Moving forward in time, it concluded with the tragic 1965 murder of three civil rights workers in the South.

The new version keeps Act I—the Appomattox act—mostly intact, but adds and subtracts some material to add more shape to the story while adding a brief but important appearance for key civil rights figure Frederick Douglass.

Act II, however, has been almost entirely reworked, according to interviews with key figures in this production, providing a major role for President Lyndon Johnson and another key role for 1960s civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To make a very long story short, the new “Appomattox” is deeply flawed, ruthlessly progressive in its politics, and wildly uneven in its narrative and musical structure. Yes, the opera does have a game plan. But that plan simply gets lost in the nasty funhouse of Act II.

The opera’s much better (and more mature) first act is by far the better act, possessing a strong and by-now mature story line and appropriate solemnity for the historic events that unfold. Act I boasts reasonably strong characterizations, and its music is distinguished by a number of robust, hymn-like choruses that manage to break out from Mr. Glass’ customarily complex, rhythmic, ever-evolving minimalistic approach to contemporary music.

The opera’s second act, however, is a colossal mess. Granted, it’s meant to carry the historical narrative forward to our own times. It also seems intended to contrast our own political era — notable for the dominance of political buffoons of all stripes — with the greatness of President Abraham Lincoln, the clearly dominant political figure of the Civil War. Problem is, the political actors in the Age of Lincoln were scarcely better than our own.

What we actually have in “Appomattox” is not one full-length opera but a pair of wildly mismatched one act operas. One is serious, thoughtful and elegiac, the other bawdy, wildly comical, and essentially unmusical.

Worse, Act II not very subtly propagandizes the “progressive” notion of an unworthy, yahoo-ridden America that will forever be enmeshed in an endless civil war among the races. It’s a hopeless, almost absurdist notion, that remains impervious to discussion or reason. But it’s also the current narrative.

For the most part, the music of “Appomattox” doesn’t help. Aside from those admirable choruses and those obnoxious yet irresistibly funny scenes depicting LBJ in all his darkly comic monstrosity, Mr. Glass’ signature, morphing time-divisions and subdivisions gradually become monotonous, while periodically bludgeoning us with percussive thunder every time the libretto announces an important point. Whatever happened to “show, don’t tell?”

Dr. King (Soloman Howard) tries to get a word in edgewise as an irascible LBJ (Tom Fox) holds forth. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Dr. King (Soloman Howard) tries to get a word in edgewise as an irascible LBJ (Tom Fox) holds forth. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)

An additional problem on opening night: the new “Appomattox” is still under construction. (Or should be.) Act II and perhaps even portions of Act I felt as if they’d either been under-rehearsed or rewritten at the last moment. At least one soloist entirely forgot one key musical line, while several others muffed theirs, although they generally covered well.

Yet another problem—not of the company’s making—was the untimely absence of their designated conductor, who was indisposed and canceled just prior to rehearsals.

With little advance notice, conductor Dante Santiago Anzolini jumped into the pit and got this difficult score under reasonable control. Yet, due either to lack of total rehearsal time or problems inherent with meshing solo and choral lines with the ever-evolving patterns of Mr. Glass’ score, the singers and the orchestra not infrequently seemed out of alignment, particularly in the work’s second stanza.

Structure, form, narrative line, musical complexity and lapses in imagination in both the music and in the unnecessarily strident progressive undercurrent of this work transformed the first outing of the new “Appomattox” into an uncertain vehicle that was not ready for prime time this week.

Unlike some critics, I don’t much enjoy writing a negative review, but that’s what this is. “Appomattox” begins as a reasonably brave attempt to deal with an ongoing issue but concludes as a frantic, messy and highly negative progressive sermon that we’ve heard many times before. The result is an almost gnostic musical and narrative mess that spends too much time preaching to the same choir and not enough time looking for a hopeful solution.

In the meantime, in spite of it all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a pair of well-deserved hat tips to baritone Tom Cox for his solemn, thoughtful Abe Lincoln and his insanely accurate Lyndon Johnson; and to bass Soloman Howard, a real superstar of tomorrow, for his excellent portrayals of both Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rating: * (One out of four stars)

WNO’s production of the newly revised “Appomattox” by composer Philip Glass continues its brief run at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Tuesday.

Tickets and information: Ticket prices range from $25 to $300 depending on day and performance. For exact dates, times and performers, visit the Washington National Opera web pages at the Kennedy Center website.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17