Sorry to have missed Reverbfest, but I was down in San Francisco for Friday’s premiere of Philip Glass’s newest opera, Appomattox. Results were mixed. The elements of Glass’s style—the repetition, the rhythmic steadiness, the pure major or minor triads—work a lot more effectively for non-representational theatrical abstractions than for traditional narrative. The opera opens (and closes) with powerful laments by Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Lincoln, and a women’s chorus of war widows; Act 1 then moves on to the events of the last week of the Civil War, told in the fairly prosaic dialogue of Christopher Hampton’s libretto. Usually Glass finds a way to model his vocal lines expressively on speech rhythms, and to make them bounce compellingly off his steady-state accompaniments, but here neither element held my attention; it seemed like an entire act of nothing but recitative. Even the act’s big set piece, the siege of Richmond, Virginia, the last sword-thrust of the South’s defeat, fell flat.
In Act 2, a different animal altogether, scenes of Grant and Lee negotiating the surrender terms are interrupted by flash-forwards to the ramifications of the event: the death of Lincoln, a Reconstruction massacre by whites of blacks agitating for voting rights (not reenacted, but described by a singer playing a journalist), and a civil rights march with a stirring chorus (“A hundred years, we still ain’t free”). And finally, and most shockingly, an aria for a singer portraying murderer and unrepentant racist Edgar Ray Killen, the Klansman who masterminded the 1964 killings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner (still alive in jail at the age of 82). There was no indication either way in the program, but it seems as though the lyrics are taken from the real-life Killen’s own words; not only his racism gets a voice, but he even appropriates the language of the righteous struggle he so bloodily opposed: “We have to keep on fighting the fight”; “Every movement has its martyrs.” Glass’s music here sounds like nothing else in his score: skittering, feverish string roulades like threads of white noise snaking through the orchestra—or through Killen’s diseased brain—and harsh percussion punctuation, psychopathy in tone. (Video clips, btw, are visible at San Francisco opera’s Web site, www.sfopera.com.)