Saturday, October 06, 2007


Friday, October 5th, wasn't the usual night at the opera, as San Francisco was giving the world premiere of Philip Glass' twenty-somethingth opera, "Appomattox," and in most respects the evening was a triumph for everyone involved.

At the core of the two-and-a-half hour piece, there is the documentary-like story of the civilized, brilliant trio of historical characters Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln as they are getting ready to end the Civil War. Surrounding this fairly simple story is the complete madness that is war and racial prejudice, which is illustrated in a series of scenes, choral tableaux, and monologues that keep breaking through time and space, from the Civil War past to Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era.

The libretto by the British playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton (above, in the middle) isn't great (if he used the word "effusion" one more time I was going to scream), but it's serviceable and covers a lot of history efficiently.

There were absurd moments in the production, such as Mary Curtis Lee's wheelchair bouncing over the metal grated set as if it were an amusement park ride, and the scene in Richmond with Abraham Lincoln and the freed slaves unfortunately brought to mind the music and lyrics from the song "Abie Baby" in the musical "Hair" (click here).

For the most part, however, the opera and its production by Robert Woodruff avoided obvious historical tableaux pitfalls, and the performances of Dwayne Croft as Lee and Andrew Shore as Grant were extraordinary, marked by beautiful baritone voices, great English diction, and interesting acting.

Since seeing "Satyagraha" in 1989 at the San Francisco Opera, my only exposure to Glass' music since that time has been through his movie scores for "Mishima," "The Thin Blue Line," "Kundun," "The Truman Show," and "The Illusionist," all of which I enjoyed. I walked out of "Koyaanisqatsi" years ago not because of Glass' music but because of the stupid, insistent film itself. Note to Castro Theatre film programmers: How about a Philip Glass film festival with bizarro double bills like "The Hours" and "Clive Barker's Candyman"? The possibilities are endless.

Philip Glass has just turned 70 and seems to be going stronger than ever, tossing off symphonies, film scores, operas and chamber music with a Baroque composer's fecundity. (Click here for his interesting website and click here for a Glass worshipers blog.) On the basis of his music for "Appomattox," I want to hear much more of his later work, because it's a wonderful score, good enough that I want to go back and hear another performance.

Major credit should go to new General Director David Gockley for this commission in the first place, and also for bringing local musical legend Dennis Russell Davies into the San Francisco Opera pit for his long overdue conducting debut. "Appomattox" was good enough that it makes me want to hear "Barbarians at the Gate," Glass and Hampton's 2005 translation of the J.M. Coetzee book, and also the Doris Lessing sci-fi collaboration, "The Making of the Representative for Planet 8."

For more Glass music in the coming week, check out the duo-piano concert at Herbst Theatre this Thursday the 11th by Dennis Russell Davies and his wife Maki Namekawa (click here for more details). It's a benefit for the Other Minds Music Festival and will feature an interview with Charles Amirkhanian and Philip Glass, both of whom are pictured above at the opera house stage door.


Matthew Hubbard said...

Thanks for this, Mike. I like Glass a lot, though I guess I go for his "poppier" stuff, since I have albums of his collabortion with Ravi Shankar and the symphony he wrote from songs on the David Bowie-Brian Eno album Low.

AlbGlinka said...

I've always loved the "Mishima" score-- I actually own it on CASSETTE TAPE.

I thought "Appomattox" was successful as well. I think on second viewing I might appreciate the subtleties even more. A few sections didn't work for me, but overall it was a moving opera, musically and dramatically.

Way fewer cliches than Tannhauser's production IMHO, and best of all for a new production: no gratuitious fedoras/ trenchcoats. Beautiful singing by the Adler women. I disagreed with Kosman's review at SFGate: I thought the Richmond refugee scene was a highlight.

It was fun running into you and your fellow blogging pal Sid.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The scene with Lincoln and the freed slaves really happened. I think it ties nicely into the many Biblical echoes in the libretto.

Fredo said...

Love your blog, as always. But a request. We need better, clearer captions for each pic.

....'cause I NEED to know who the hottie in the 7th picture is.

Love, your friend and neighbor,

Civic Center said...

Dear Alfredo: The guy in the seventh pic is Cedric, a French engineer who is also a classical music writer for SFist. I'm afraid he's of the hetero persuasion, however, married to the lady in photo #6.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I was watching the scene with Lincoln and the freed slaves in Richmond and wondering why it looked so familiar, and then I realized Garry Wills had discussed it at length in his fascinating recent lecture at Cal on Lincoln and religion (here's a summary: Lincoln and religion -- not like Bush and religion).
And yeah, a salute to Gockley for bringing this about.