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Washington National Opera

In Review WNO Appomattox hdl 216
Howard as King in Act II of Appomattox at WNO
© Scott Suchman/WNO

THE BEST OF OPERAS , old and new, feel timely in one way or another, with something to say to us. Appomattox, the greatly revised work with music by Philip Glass and a libretto by Christopher Hampton, provides almost uncomfortable relevance.

The first version of Appomattox, which had its premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2007, focused on the closing days of the Civil War but, in Act II, brought up the murders of civil-rights workers in 1965. Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello felt that aspect of the original version of the opera could be more fully developed. She offered Glass and Hampton a new production and the chance to revisit the work.

Hampton already had started the process, in the form of a stage play, also called Appomattox, that balanced the action set in 1865 with a look at the effort a century later to pass the Voting Rights Act. He and Glass, concerned about recent efforts to dilute that legislation, gave their opera an entirely different Act II, set mostly in 1965, and also made some changes to Act I. Unveiled in a brilliantly realized production directed by Tazewell Thompson, Washington National Opera’s new Appomattox is stronger than the 2007 original, though it still might benefit from further tweaking to make it a little less episodic, a little more tightly focused. Still, as a commentary on both the past and the here-and-now of American race relations, it certainly succeeds and certainly proves compelling.

The libretto gets wordy in spots, with many a line that does not lend itself naturally to musical treatment. But the parade of historical figures is kept on a personal level (in the case of Lyndon Johnson, a little too personal), so that the human scale of events is never obscured. Hampton does not stint on use of the n word in the libretto, adding, in Act II, a considerable number of expletives not typically uttered in operas. There is some humor, too, as when Lincoln tells Frederick Douglass, “You need not feel the slightest obligation to vote Republican,” and the great abolitionist replies: “I can’t imagine any circumstance which would cause me to vote any other way.” 

Although Glass sometimes settles for routine harmonic/rhythmic churning in his familiar vein, the score is often remarkably rich in melodic flight and orchestral texture. Two scenes, in particular, linger. Early in Act I, the wives of Lincoln, Grant and Lee, along with Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress, former slave Elizabeth Keckley, plead, whatever the outcome of the war, “Let this be the last time.” A women’s chorus joins them. Glass reaches great eloquence here, then outdoes himself at the end of the opera when a similar grouping of female characters, including Lady Bird Johnson, Coretta Scott King and murdered civil-rights worker Viola Liuzzo, join with the women’s chorus in prayerful hope that the world can somehow be transformed. That finale registered with particular poignancy on November 18 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. As the characters formed a tight circle of solidarity, and Melody Moore’s silvery soprano soared with a kind of angelic grace to cap the exquisitely harmonized scene, the effect was downright profound.

All of the singers got deep into their dual roles. Tom Fox conjured up the physical characteristics of Lincoln and LBJ and used his sturdy, colorful baritone effectively for each. He even managed to maintain dignity while performing scenes that depicted the foul-mouthed Johnson in the bathroom (thankfully, staged behind a half-opened door) and subsequently fussing over a boil on his bottom. Although more weight and resonance in his low register would have been welcome, everything else about Soloman Howard’s performance as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., rang strong and true. The bass delivered particularly warm singing in an expansive, lyrical aria for King that incorporates text (but not the tune) from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In addition to her sensitive work as Liuzzo, Moore provided vocal richness and emotional power as Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses. The general was sung with a few frayed edges (but lots of personality) by Richard Paul Fink, who was also impressive as Johnson’s attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach. Once warmed up, David Pittsinger’s round tone matched his incisive phrasing as Lee and, chillingly, as Edgar Ray Killen, shown in jail in the opera’s penultimate scene, set in 2011, boasting of having killed “scum of the earth” civil-rights workers.

There were dynamic, bright-toned contributions from soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (Mary Todd Lincoln/Lady Bird Johnson) and mezzo Chrystal E. Williams (Elizabeth Keckley/Coretta Scott King). Frederick Ballentine wielded his vibrant tenor expressively as black Civil War correspondent T. Morris Chester and made a strong impression, too, as Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis. In a couple of thankless roles, Robert Brubaker caught the smarm of J. Edgar Hoover as deftly as Aleksey Bogdanov conveyed that of George Wallace. Dante Santiago Anzolini conducted with admirable nuance and drew polished playing from the orchestra. Thompson’s direction kept things flowing smoothly and absorbingly on Donald Eastman’s two-tiered set, which, aided by Robert Wierzel’s refined lighting, conjured up a good deal of atmosphere subtly. The spot-on costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh added the finishing visual touch to an absorbing, multilayered opera that takes an uncompromising look at painful chapters in the American experience.  —Tim Smith 

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