Appomattox Closes at SF Opera

* Notes *
Appomattox ended its 7 performance run yesterday. Sara Jobin conducted well, and the only weak points I noticed were when the orchestra overwhelmed Brian Leerhuber (Robert E. Lee) at the end of Act I Scene 2 and during the choral "Clap your hands all you people" in Act I Scene 4. Brian Leerhuber sang beautifully, his diction was good and his Southern drawl was convincing. Rhoslyn Jones (Julia Dent Grant) sang the finale particularly well this time, with good volume but also delicacy.

* Tattling *
The house was fairly full for this final performance, but not entirely, despite the special 50% offer on the tickets. The audience was quiet, except for some person in the orchestra with a plastic bag who made quite a lot of noise for most of Act I Scene 3. The only applause during the performance for the scene change between Act I Scene 2 and Scene 3, I believe this was because a metallic wall comes down to hide the upstage.

It only took three viewings, but this time I noticed that baritone Michael Mohammed, who works with Oakland Opera Theater, was part of the chorus. Looking more carefully at the program, I see that bass Anthony Russell (A freed slave) also sang at OOT.

Appomattox Opening

Dwayne Croft, photo by Terrence McCarthy* Notes *
Appomattox had its world premiere last Friday. I must confess I do not enjoy contemporary music, in fact, I am not overfond of many operas after Fidelio. This is ridiculous, given that this encompasses Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. Setting that aside, I found Appomattox rather less challenging than Doctor Atomic, Le Grand Macabre, or Saint François d'Assise. I even got the chorus of Jimmie Lee stuck in my head after the final dress rehearsal, and noted that this was the only part that garnered applause during the music.

As for singing, I thought it was something of a shame that all the lead female roles were filled with Adler Fellows. It is not that they are not good or have poor voices, but they do lack experience. Particularly with Julia Dent Grant, the role is prominent and may have been better with someone with more control of her voice. Rhoslyn Jones, who sings this role, has a big voice with lots of vibrato. Her voice is pleasing in her middle range. I remember her quite clearly as Frasquita in Carmen last season, so she is, at least, consistent and distinct. On the other hand, it was difficult to tell that is was Elza van den Heever in the role of Mary Custis Lee, the role did not show off how pretty her voice can be. Her Southern accent was not as prominent as it could have been, at times she dropped it. Ji Young Yang's accent as Julia Agnes Lee was certainly not Southern, her alveolar approximant /ɹ/,had a certain lateral quality.  Yang's voice is otherwise bright and very pretty. Heidi Melton sang well as Mary Todd Lincoln, though her voice is a bit harsh in the higher range too. Her acting was strong. Kendall Gladen was the only mezzo, as Elizabeth Keckley, and she sounded lovely, though she was quieter than Melton, with whom she sang.

Dwayne Croft was excellent as Robert E. Lee, his voice is sweet and he carried himself in a suitably dignified manner. There were a couple of times that his voice was overwhelmed but the orchestra, but I suspect this is partially because I was in orchestra standing room, where quieter voices sometimes get lost. Andrew Shore was slightly less appealing as Ulysses S. Grant, but his American accent was clear and he was always audible. He sang a duet with Julia Dent Grant in Act I Scene 3 that was particularly moving. For the other male roles, tenor and Adler Noah Stewart stood out as T. Morris Chester, his acting was stirring and his voice carried well.

* Tattling *
Sara Jobin did not seem comfortable giving the opera talk, she looked at her watch many times. The conductor did sing parts of the opera, since there were no recordings for her to play, and that was absolutely charming. The orchestra and boxes looked full, though I heard the attendance up in the balcony was sparser. There was a little whispering, but for the most part everyone was respectful and quiet. The work received a standing ovation.

Final Dress Rehearsal of Appomattox

* Notes *
The final dress rehearsal of Appomattox was last night. On the whole, I found the music, libretto, and production rather dark and a bit heavy-handed. The music, unsurprisingly, is reiterative and the singing style more declamatory than lyrical. There are no soaring high notes, but this does keep the text clear, at least when the balance between orchestra and singers was right. The two male leads are both baritones, but their voices are distinct enough from each other. The soprano role of Julia Dent Grant is significant, she begins the piece a cappella, there is no overture at all, and she ends the opera along with a women's chorus.

The choral parts are lovely, especially the Civil War era "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" at the end of Act I Scene 1, the black Union soldiers singing in Act I Scene 4, and the song concerning Jimmie Lee Jackson in Act II.   

The set has a modern sensibility, lots of metal and such, but with period furniture and costumes. There were disturbing visual elements such as the cart full of amputated body parts in the Prologue and dead horses hanging from the ceiling in Act I Scene 4 and the Epilogue.

Though Act I is completely set in April 1865, Act II is interspersed with scenes in the from Reconstruction, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and a present day first-person account of the Mississippi civil rights worker murders. Though it is true that the ramifications of the American Civil War exist even now, these jarring direct links provided by the libretto are somewhat preachy and disconcerting.

I have not a few impressions on the singing thus far, but will wait until after the opening to solidify my opinions.

* Tattling *
There were several groups of students at this performance and they were somewhat loud and had to be hushed several times. For the most part they were quiet after that except during Edgar Ray Killen's aria at the end of Act II. The opera has ten instances of American English's most troublesome racial slur, more than half of which are in the aforementioned aria.

Baritone Thomas Hampson, who just sang in "Das Lied von der Erde" last week at San Francisco Symphony, was in attendance, as was Amy Tan, whose book The Bonesetter's Daughter is to be premiered as an opera next year.   

Appomattox Panel Discussion

AppomattoxKip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Appomattox yesterday evening. The panelists included composer Philip Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton, conductor Dennis Russell Davies, director Robert Woodruff, baritone Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee), and baritone Andrew Shore (Ulysses S. Grant). Each person was asked about how he became part of this world premiere. We learnt that Christopher Hampton knew little about the American Civil War; that Dennis Russell Davies sent Philip Glass a recording of the "Tenting Tonight," which was included in the opera; that there were two baritones as leads to make it easier for the words to be understood; and that the two baritones were distinguished by a major second.

Interview with an Icon: Philip Glass

Philipglass* Notes *
The word icon is from Greek εἰκών meaning "image."

Last night, Philip Glass was interviewed by David Gockley at the Interview with an Icon donor event. The first half of the interview was devoted to Glass' life, working at his father's record store as a child; going to Peabody, University of Chicago, and Julliard; studying with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar; his operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten; and his work in film. The second half had to do with Appomattox, which opens this Friday in a world premiere. Among the details discussed were the librettist Christopher Hampton and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, both of whom are having their San Francisco Opera debuts with Appomattox. This latest opera has two baritones as leads, Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee and Andrew Shore as Ulysses S. Grant. Apparently the costumes are period, the sets minimalistic, and the opera covers not only the Civil War, but comes up to the present day.

* Tattling *
The venue was moved from the opera house to Herbst Theatre, and they did not open the doors until ten minutes before the event. Philip Glass mumbled a great deal, and mistakenly said "Los Angeles" for "San Francisco" at one point, and David Gockley kicked him. Gockley had a cold and also took one of his shoes off during the interview. The audience, however, was very well-behaved.

This interview will probably be made into a podcast.