Washington National Opera

Appomattox: A Grand Pageant Traces Continuing Rights Struggle

Seen Nov. 20, 2015
Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Appomattox is a grand pageant of history, supported by inventive music. Does that make it an opera? That's difficult to answer since an opera usually dramatizes in music the romance, rise and fall, heroism, tragic fault or, at least, adventure of a human or group of people. In the case of Appomattox the character at its heart is racial equality as exemplified by voting rights.

WNO's world premiere of the second version of the expansive Philip Glass-Christopher Hampton work is a genuine opera, but it tells a story that has yet to be completed. The original, in 2005, carried the story from the end of the Civil War 150 years earlier to the murder of three young civil rights workers in 1965. The libretto later was made into a play that carried the story through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and into the 21st Century until the Supreme Court decision of Nov. 9, 2012 striking down a significant part of that act. That play is the basis for the present two acts.

The opera doesn't judge any of the events, but the underlying theme is that legal issues decided within the ideological framework of the U.S. Constitution are often not settled for good. Push-back against guaranteed voting rights through voter identification laws, supposedly to guard against vote fraud, is evident today. In a note in the program, Glass speculates that a third act may be needed “within, say, the next 20 years.”

Opera goers being what they are -- older-- much of the audience, including your reporter, lived through all of the story since the 60s. In 50 years that would be the case for very few. The musical merits, rich as they are, may not support performance in 2065.

Today the theme and the music are strong enough to support an opera without songs. It doesn't require world-class singers, but it got fine ones at WNO. The leading figures, 150 years apart, were cast with the same singers:

Abraham Lincoln-Lyndon B. Johnson was baritone Tom Fox, an established figure of the opera stage, He expressed Johnson's outsized, and somewhat earthy, and Lincoln's much less outgoing personalities effectively. Thankfully, there was no attempt to mimic Johnson's Texas drawl.

Solomon Howard, a Washington native, fit the bill as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., roles expressed primarily through meetings with the President. There was no attempt to recreate Dr. King's stirring speeches. He didn't have much musical opportunity to display his fine bass.

Baritone Richard Paul Fink, as Ulysses S. Grant and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, and bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee and Edgar Ray Killen (convicted in the murder of three young civil rights workers) also had major character roles.

The women in the cast were mostly wives of the leading men, but they provided the best of the actual singing. Soprano Melody Moore, who played Mrs. Grant as well as civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo, showed her proven ability to soar above a full chorus, especially in the final scene. The chorus was prepared by Steven Gathman, as it has been for more than 100 productions with the company.

Veteran set designer Donald Eastman made a special contribution with an all-purpose set that served without change as interior and exterior of everything from the Robert E. Lee home to the Oval Office of the White House. Scenery changes would have stifled a story covering nearly 50 events.

Tazewell Thompson directed with the consummate skill he's shown so often. He was making his WNO debut, somewhat surprisingly considering his world-wide career and 24 productions locally with Arena Stage.

Conductor Dante Santiago Anzolini has conducted all over the world, including Glass's Satygraha with Metropolitan Opera. He also was making his WNO debut.

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