It's hard to imagine a more suitable composer for a major opera about the constancy of war than Philip Glass, although vthe reason for this is not flattering. Just as the author Arthur Koestler once said that "the most persistent sound which reverberates through men's history is the beating of war drums," so Glass' music has persisted, with a pronounced lack of variety, for more than half a century.
The American maestro is a towering figure in the world of contemporary classical music, having written more than 20 operas during the course of his eminent career, including The Voyage and Einstein on the Beach, not to mention the scores for films like Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. The composer's compact manipulation of sound waves is instantly recognizable. It's hard to imagine a Glass score without the statutory rising arpeggios, frenetic undulations between the tonic and minor third, bass pedal notes, and hiccupping syncopations. There's undeniably a somnambulant beauty to his signature style — it's just that his work always sounds the same.
The problem with commissioning this composer of perpetually repetitious music to write an opera about the perpetually repetitious nature of war is that it quickly becomes heavy-handed and boring. Audiences at San Francisco Opera's world premiere production of Glass' opera about the final throes of the American Civil War, Appomattox, suffer as a result.
A spirit of "the more things change, the more things stay the same" dominates Appomattox. Set in Virginia in the spring of 1865 and based on historical events, the plot centers on the maneuvers of the great Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee as they struggle to bring four years of terrible, nation-destroying fighting between the North and South to a close. As Grant and Lee meet face to face in the Virginia town of Appomattox to negotiate the Confederate forces' surrender, a feeling of futility prevails in spite of the overtures of peace. The narrative flashes forward to the 1960s and the present day to scenes depicting continued outrages committed against blacks. By the end of the opera, the peace treaty seems practically meaningless. Mankind's appetite for war erases the well-meaning signatures almost before the ink has had time to dry. As the female chorus puts it in the closing scene: "Human nature will not change. What has occurred must ever reoccur. This will not be the last time."
The relentlessness of war isn't a particularly original subject, though works like Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, Olivier Messiaen's chamber music piece Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, and the plays that make up Shakespeare's "Henriad" prove the truism's ability to capture the imagination when treated with depth, subtlety, and/or humor. David Gockley has assembled a top creative team for his first world premiere as San Francisco Opera's general director. The combination of Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton, and director Robert Woodruff carries the same level of clout, artistically speaking, as the heavy-hitting collaboration among Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin – the Second World War's "Big Three." Yet for all the talent poured into Appomattox, the work provides little to alleviate an essentially didactic treatment of an eternal theme.
That's not to say that the opera doesn't offer moments of relief from the monotony. The contrast between baritone Dwayne Croft's crisp, gentlemanly Lee and bass-baritone Andrew Shore's down-to-earth Grant provides much of the work's momentum. The disparity between the two generals is most acutely felt when they face off at Appomattox Court House in Act II. In his polished battle regalia, Lee looks as if he's about to sit for his portrait. Grant, conversely, looks as if he hasn't bathed in a week. Hampton's libretto provides, at times, absorbing glimpses into the inner torments of these two great public figures. Learning about Grant's migraine and watching Lee dress (or, rather, be dressed by a black servant) makes them appear human. Seeing these characters as men rather than military leaders provides a level of crucial intimacy to offset the magnificent impersonality of Riccardo Hernandez' steel and concrete set ornamented with hanging horse carcasses and Christopher Akerlind's glaring lights.
Woodruff's staging of the looting that takes place after Lee and Grant have left the house in which they hold their historic meeting is similarly inspired. (The home belonged to one Wilmer McLean, who, in one of American history's most ironic twists, left his farm in Manassas, Virginia, to escape the war at its start, only to find himself embroiled in its end.)
As McLean, Torlef Borsting pitifully clutches a framed painting as strangers burst into his house and steal every scrap of furniture, finally tearing down the very walls to leave a barren steel frame. The frame then morphs into a prison cell as we move to the present day to watch the wheelchair-bound and unrepentant Ku Klux Klan organizer Edgar Ray Killen (Philip Skinner) gloat over the civil rights activists whose deaths he caused in the 1960s. The vision of a house of justice becoming a prisoner's cage makes a potent yet subtle statement about the ephemerality of peace.
Even Glass' music deviates long enough from its steadfast pedal note, syncopation, and arpeggio-belabored course to offer a little relief. The composer's sprightly, martial settings of texts from several original Civil War songs like "First Arkansas Marching Song" and "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" for the male chorus evoke the spirit of the era. Elsewhere, a lovely, sighing English horn motif heightens the pain of the sad closing scene. Unfortunately, the general excesses of the mise-en-scène coupled with Glass' unyielding pummeling of our ears serves to undermine the opera's small subtleties. In the most exhausting scene of all, for instance, a vast chorus of woebegone, displaced civilians tramples noisily across the stage before forming a tableau and wailing "Aaaaaah! Aaaaaah! Aaaaaah!" repeatedly for what feels like an eternity. Meanwhile cannons blast, guns fire, and lights flash. By the end of this assault on our senses, I suddenly understood what had happened to Grant's migraine. It had been passed on to us.
When, in the final moments of the opera, several of the aforementioned horse carcasses are hoisted skywards only this time dripping with blood, it's hard to continue looking at the stage. It's not that they are particularly disturbing, though they're hardly a lovely sight. It's the embarrassment one feels at the visual conceit. Instead of allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the parallels between the lives lost in the Civil War and the lynchings of the civil rights era, Glass and his cohorts clobber us over the head. Never in the history of opera has "flogging a dead horse" been so explicitly realized.
Appomattox may leave us in doubt as to Gockley's commissioning skills. On the other hand, it does leave us certain of two things: That there will always be wars, and that Glass' music will always be the same.