Glass’s revised “Appomattox” proves even more unwieldy at Washington National Opera

November 15, 2015
By Charles T. Downey
Soloman Howard as Martin Luther King in Philip Glass's revised and expanded version of "Appomattox" at Washington National Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

Soloman Howard as Martin Luther King in Philip Glass’s “Appomattox” at Washington National Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

In some ways, the United States is still fighting the Civil War. Political divides, even now, often fall along similar fault lines, and the wounds caused by the conflict, Tristan-like, refuse to heal.

This was the premise of Philip Glass’s opera Appomattox, premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2007, which connects the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. Although critics hailed it as unwieldy, Glass decided to expand the work for a revival at Washington National Opera, which opened Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

The original outline of the work remains the same, drawing a line from events surrounding the surrender of Robert E. Lee in 1865 to the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. It concludes with a chilling postlude set in 2011, featuring the murderer of three Civil Rights volunteers now serving time in jail. In the revised version, the Civil War portion of the story is compressed into a 90-minute first act.

Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton have expanded the 20th-century portion of the story in a revised second act, doubling the roles so that Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson are sung by the same singer, for example. They have also added a major role for Martin Luther King, Jr., doubling on the small addition of Frederick Douglass in the first act. Unfortunately, now spanning nearly three hours of music, Appomattox, has become even more unwieldy.

WNO has assembled quite a troupe of singers for the sprawling cast, with uneven results. Bass Soloman Howard was imposing as Douglass/King, with the only real breakout aria in the whole opera, the speech given by King at the State Capitol in Montgomery at the conclusion of the march from Selma. That is the famous “How long? Not long” speech, in which King said, among other things, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As the makers of last year’s film Selma also discovered, the King family keeps tight control over public use of King’s speeches. Here the aria mostly consists of words from The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and much more of that text than King actually quoted in his speech. King’s own words are not included.

Baritone Tom Fox relished the potty-mouthed dialogue of Lyndon Johnson, although he was less memorable in the somewhat staid role of Lincoln, eclipsed by the catty excesses of soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird as Mary Todd Lincoln. Soprano Melody Moore was a vocal sensation as Mrs. Grant in the first act, and equally so in the second act as Viola Liuzzo, a puzzling sidetrack; she was a volunteer from Michigan, shot by the Ku Klux Klan after supposedly experiencing a premonition that someone would die that day.

Bass-baritone David Pittsinger was vocally powerful as General Lee and Edgar Ray Killen, if not always rhythmically in synch, a problem Fox also experienced in the LBJ scene in Act II. Baritone Richard Paul Fink had a brash tone as General Grant and Nicholas Katzenbach, but he suffered a major memory lapse in the surrender scene at the Appomattox Court House before eventually recovering. Tenor Frederick Ballentine made a slightly rough but heroic company debut as African-American Civil War journalist T. Morris Chester and John Lewis. In the supporting cast Aleksey Bogdanov had a memorable turn as a loathsome George Wallace.

Many of the evening’s musical problems came down to the conducting of Dante Santiago Anzolini, who stepped in at the last minute to replace an indisposed Dennis Russell Davies. Ensemble unity was troubled all evening, with intonation problems and uncertainty within the orchestra, as well as minor disagreements between pit and platform. The WNO Chorus had the most beautiful moments, especially in the women’s chorus that concludes the opera. Director Tazewell Thompson’s production only added to the static nature of the work, unfolding on a single set that serves for all settings (a grand, white house backdrop designed by Donald Eastman). Although the costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh were colorful, Tazewell’s blocking of the cast was often static as well.

Ultimately, the changes to the opera in this version do nothing to create a more compelling narrative arc. One is left wondering who the hero of this story is: Abraham Lincoln? Ulysses Grant? Jimmie Lee Jackson? Martin Luther King? Viola Liuzzo? The stories it wants to tell are important, but this sense of importance weighs down the work in its desire to tell everything, making it ponderous and tedious. The story is timely, in the wake of ongoing controversy over the Voting Rights Act and the Black Lives Matter movement. Even so, an opera needs emotional focus in character and plot to succeed, which are sorely lacking in Appomattox.

Appomattox continues through November 22.

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