Tuesday, October 09, 2007

American Art And Culture Disconnect II: Like PBS's "The War", Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton's "Appomattox" Greeted By Near Silence By Many

"Nearly a century and a half after its conclusion and long after anyone who witnessed it is gone, the Civil War remains the defining event of American history. It's the wound that refuses to heal, the festering outgrowth of the racial crimes encoded in the nation's DNA.

"Appomattox," the ambitious and maddeningly inconsistent new opera by composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton that had its world premiere Friday night at the San Francisco Opera, attempts nothing less than to capture that sense of far-reaching scope.

As the title suggests, the opera's ostensible subject is the historic meeting between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in April 1865, when Lee's surrender - negotiated in an aura of courtly respect - brought the bloody hostilities to an end.

But Glass and Hampton cast their net further. They look backward from Appomattox to try to conjure up the horrors of the war itself, the most intensively murderous conflict the world had yet seen. And they look ahead to the ensuing hundred years, in which the recurrent violence of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras seemed to bear out Abraham Lincoln's pessimistic view of human nature.

That's a lot to try to pack into 21/2 hours of musical theater, and during Friday's opening performance at the War Memorial Opera House, "Appomattox" - the first new work commissioned by the company under General Director David Gockley - sometimes struggled to do justice to the broad terrain its creators had mapped out.

The opera's strengths are impressive. The relationship between the two generals - each striving in his own way to satisfy the demands of humanity and national honor - is finely drawn, and the two roles were handsomely sung by baritones Andrew Shore (in his company debut) as Grant and Dwayne Croft as Lee. Women's voices are interjected into the predominantly male landscape through the presence of the two generals' families and Mary Todd Lincoln, who provide a poignant counterpoint.

And in the second act, as "Appomattox" intercuts the surrender negotiations with a series of short episodes from the subsequent century's worth of racial strife, the opera adopts a brisk historical long view that is effectively matched by the sinewy vigor of Glass' music." ...

Joshua Kosman "Philip Glass opera 'Appomattox' both impressive and inconsistent" San Francisco Chronicle October 8, 2007


In lieu of the National Broadcast of the San Francisco Opera World Premiere, on PBS, we are offered the following "video clip" [link on lower left of page]:


Roger Fenton, The tombs of the generals on Cathcart's Hill (above)

Roger Fenton, The artist's van (below)

Photographic panorama of the plateau of Sebastopol, Crimea

Roger Fenton's Crimean War photographs represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through the medium of photography. Fenton, who spent fewer than four months in the Crimea (March 8 to June 26, 1855), produced 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions. While these photographs present a substantial documentary record of the participants and the landscape of the war, there are no actual combat scenes, nor are there any scenes of the devastating effects of war.

The Library of Congress purchased 263 of Fenton's salted paper and albumen prints from his grandniece Frances M. Fenton in 1944, including his most well-known photograph, "Valley of the Shadow of Death."

Text and photo credits: Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., United States of America.


Ongoing Cultural Disconnect: WETA-FM, Public radio in Nation's Capital, celebrates Christopher Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day/Clash of Civilizations Day, on Monday, October 8, 2007.


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