Battle Hymn of a Divided Republic

Lisa Hirsch on October 9, 2007
Appomattox, Philip Glass' much-anticipated new opera, rolled into San Francisco on October 5 as part of a wave of premieres by the composer, who celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year. While it’s a less musically interesting work than either his Eighth Symphony or Songs and Poems for Cello, the opera's subject matter and the excellence of Christopher Hampton's eminently singable libretto make Appomattox theatrically effective and deeply emotional for audience members who have any knowledge of the Civil War, its causes, and its results. Superb direction by Robert Woodruff, taut conducting by longtime Glass champion Dennis Russell Davies, and splendid performances on the part of all the singers paradoxically resulted in a triumph despite the intermittent musical weaknesses of the piece. In the end, Appomattox breaks no new ground for Glass and, indeed, sometimes feels in need of more musical drama. Hampton based much of the libretto on original sources, including, variously, the dispatches Lee and Grant exchanged before the surrender, letters between Grant and his wife, what's known about Mary Lincoln, and the words of a 20th-century Ku Klux Klansman. The libretto gives us an intimate picture of the Civil War as it drew to a close, focusing on the thoughts of the political and military leaders — and their wives — and on the experiences of African-Americans during the war and during the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was so much in the public eye.

Battles Won and Lost

The major battles of the Civil War, and the tremendous carnage that resulted, are alluded to in the text but mostly not shown, though we get a bit of the final fight over Richmond, Virgina, the former Confederate capitol. Even then, we see the battle through the eyes of fleeing civilians and the troop of former slaves, now members of the Union army, who first entered the city. This sequence in particular exemplifies both the weaknesses and strengths of Appomattox. The refugees stream across the stage, some coming from the rear of the set, others entering down a long inclined ramp. The set is sufficiently abstract that while the refugees could be in Richmond, 1865, they could also be immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island, even though they're perhaps too well-dressed for that. The chorus looks out over the audience and sings "Ahh!" to a fairly anonymous melismatic tune over thinnish accompaniment, while sound-effect explosions representing the distant battle and approach of the Union Army echo around the theater. The music itself conveys little of the moment's drama. Far more effective was the entry of the First Arkansas Regiment moments later, following a brief interlude in which Mary Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee, and her daughter discuss the events we have seen. For the First Arkansas, Glass composed a fine new march to a Civil War text. The text itself seems closely related to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with many Biblical allusions buttressing a rousing statement of freedom. The other original genre piece, "The Ballad of Jimmy Lee," is also musically effective, and earned spontaneous applause from the audience. Overall, though, I often wished for less repetition and more of the striking beauty that occasionally emerged, such as the scene midway through Act 2, where Mrs. Lincoln recounts a dream the president had foretelling his death.

Blurring Time and Place

The work is structured in two acts preceded by a prologue. The prologue is given over to Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant; Mary Custis Lee and her daughter Julia; Mary Todd Lincoln, the president's wife; and Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln's friend, seamstress, and a former slave. The beginning might be called "War is always sorrowful," a quotation from General Grant that recurs throughout the prologue and makes up much of the closing chorus. The first act leads up to Lee's decision to surrender in the face of defeat. The second act opens in the village of Appomattox Courthouse, inside the home of Wilmer McClean, who could say quite rightly that the war began in his kitchen at Manassas, where a shell from the first Battle of Bull Run exploded, and ended in his parlor at Appomattox. Act 1 proceeds chronologically, while during Act 2 events from different times and places overlap in and around McClean's house. During the surrender scene, we see Mrs. Lincoln telling Mrs. Keckley about the president's dreams; we see T. Morris Chester, the only African-American journalist to cover the war, talking about the 1873 murder of 100 black men at the hands of the military; and we see 1960s civil rights workers singing about the murder of young Jimmy Lee by state troopers. All of this is ironic, because the devout wish of Grant, Lee, and Lincoln was to settle the war in the most conciliatory fashion, to bind up the wounds so that the country could once more be united in peace. We witness this throughout the opera, and hear it documented in their own words. The circumstances of the war, Lincoln's death, the horror of Reconstruction, and the enormous difficulties of integrating the newly freed into a society that once enslaved them led directly to the later events depicted in the opera, and give Appomattox its enormous emotional resonance.
Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) and Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft)

All photos by Terrence McCarthy

Most of the characters in the opera are familiar to us from history, and the extensive literature about the Civil War means that we know them fairly intimately. Andrew Shore, in his San Francisco Opera debut, and Dwayne Croft give marvelous performances as, respectively, Generals Grant and Lee. Both are made up to closely resemble photographs of the two leaders, and Croft towers over Shore as Lee towered over Grant. Croft easily catches Lee's nobility in his onstage bearing and dark baritone. Shore's awkward, grainier-voiced Grant is visibly deferential to the aristocratic Lee, even after having defeated him and after showing no deference whatsoever to the president or any military underlings. Rhoslyn Jones creates a touching and vulnerable Julia Grant, and, with Shore, makes the Grants' mutual love affectingly clear.
Mary Custis Lee (Elza van den Heever)
Elza van den Heever sang powerfully and gave a standout performance as the waspish, proud, and bitter Mary Lee, a woman whose path you would not want to cross. While Ji Young Yang sang sweetly as Julia Lee, her slight Korean accent was out of place in a cast whose careful diction and dialect coaching gave the Confederates clear Southern accents. Heidi Melton sang a full-throated and human Mary Lincoln, sometimes funny and sometimes foolish, sounding all the while as though she has Wagner leads in her future. Tenor Noah Stewart sang spectacularly as the African-American journalist (and eventual lawyer) T. Morris Chester, displaying a beautiful, and sizable, lyric tenor. Kendall Gladen and Jeremey Galyon were fine, and in character, as Mrs. Keckley and President Lincoln. Also appearing in smaller roles, and also excellent, were Chad Shelton, Jere Torkelsen, Richard Walker, and John Minagro. A host of chorus members sang unnamed roles, and I must call attention to the quartet of Virginia Pluth, Claudia Siefer, Antoine Garth, and Frederick Matthews, playing civil rights workers, whose impassioned performance of "The Ballad of Jimmy Lee" made such an impression that I woke up with it running through my head the day after the premiere.
Edgar Ray Killen (Philip Skinner)
The closing set-piece of the opera, before the final statement of "War is always sorrowful," is a long and chilling solo by bass-baritone Philip Skinner. He portrays the octogenarian Edgar Ray Killen, convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to kill several civil rights workers some 40 years earlier. Skinner's performance is scarily perfect, delivered coldly from Killen's wheelchair and consisting of Killen's own words, which include "I'd love to shake [James Earl Ray's] hand" and calling the civil rights workers troublemakers and "scum of the earth." For anyone who doubts that the legacy of the Civil War is still with us, I would suggest a ticket to Appomattox, a reading of James McPherson's magisterial history of the war, Battle Cry of Freedom, and a look at current news stories about the Jena Six.