Three hours of recitative with ne’er an aria. Some striking choruses. A big story. A blow-by-blow libretto and an often leaden score. Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton’s Appomattox, directed by Tazewell Thompson so substantially rewritten since 2007, that this was billed as a second world première, chronicled in depth the great racial freedom narratives of 1865 and 1965. Credit to them for the monumental conception, for the artistic grandeur, and that earnest commitment to political relevance. The commentaries in the programme read like a manifesto: even the current Supreme Court was rapped (two judges were, appropriately enough, sitting in front). But (and I write as a professional historian), why should an opera read as a history text book, and that of the most prosaic kind? Heavens, we were cheated of even one stage death, and we had voter registration debates rather than pity and terror: the “hurly-burly of robust debate is the glory of democracy”, we were told by Abe himself at his second inaugural ball. Context, man! High emotion fell flat again and again, as flat as the monochrome score which rarely built tension and hardly peaked to forte. “Never before had so much blood been drained,” to paraphrase the libretto, from a story with such passion.

Robert Baker, David Pittsinger, Aleksey Bogdanov and Richard Paul Pink © Scott Suchman
Robert Baker, David Pittsinger, Aleksey Bogdanov and Richard Paul Pink
© Scott Suchman

I know history repeating itself was one of the main conceits, and repetitive music can get under your skin if done properly, but you need to be superb at tonal colour or cross-references to carry it off, otherwise it is a dead weight. On the whole, I am inclined to put much of the fault down to artistic self-indulgence, of trying to do too much on stage: 1865, 1873, 1965, 2011. There were a host of main protagonists in numerous pairings which led to a nice mirroring effect, naturally, but did not facilitate thorough character development. We were constantly being shunted from one duet to another – concerned wives of leaders (chirpily avian Anne-Carolyn Bird as Mrs Lincoln and later Lady Bird Johnson, for instance) to LBJ’ (Tom Fox)’s toilet-humoured interactions (Was he so vulgar? Cheap laughs at any rate). And meanwhile, singers were drowning in text: forced to be prolix, there were few heart-throb voices tonight (the big exception being Melody Moore) but more probably because they didn’t get a chance to do what opera singers do best: just sing. Occasionally, it would have been a relief for only the spun melody to matter, not the words. Even at the treaty-signing at Appomattox, (and yes, they discussed the terms in detail), when yellow-sashed Lee (David Pittsinger) was left on stage, having surrendered, the potential dramatic climax was subverted by a lame message to his soldiers about being good citizens. Let’s get a sense of ruat caelum. No need to pick up the pieces and tidy it all into prose. There is artistic strength in omission.

David Pittsinger (Robert E. Lee) © Scott Suchman
David Pittsinger (Robert E. Lee)
© Scott Suchman

Ironically, for all that this opera was essentially about popular freedoms, the chorus was an intermittent presence in Act I. They were more in the thick of the action in Act II, bearing the potency and  point of the whole: Lee’s funeral and King’s freedom chorus had raw energy and the women’s chorus at the end was limpid and luminous, an entirely beautiful thing. In fact, the second act (the revised) was a signal improvement and I was wondering would the opera work on me by attrition.

At least visually, it was straightforwardly pleasant to watch. The frock coats, crinolines, gold buttons and epaulettes of Act I gave way to the suits, pill-box hats and Mary Jane shoes of Act II. Staging was simple, understated and classical. An especially neat scene showed Lee and Grant under two giant flags, occupying two separate actual and political spaces. The chourses were powerfully choreographed.

Soloman Howard (Dr Martin Luther King, Jr) and Tom Fox (President Lyndon B. Johnson) © Scott Suchman
Soloman Howard (Dr Martin Luther King, Jr) and Tom Fox (President Lyndon B. Johnson)
© Scott Suchman

The production is likely to sharply divide opinion and that, to my mind, is healthy. For some, it will be the opera du jour that needed to be written and shown here in the heart of Washington, DC in the very Kennedy Center. The past is not dead, as they say: it’s not even past. The work’s immediacy will trump all else. I have no problem with art being political; in fact, it is perhaps important that high culture, with all its endemic establishment privilege, does not side-step controversial issues on the street. But a sincere political message is no excuse for massive artistic self-indulgence and relentless preaching. As an outsider to American society, and a mere interested observer of its past and present, I hope it will not be too flippant of me to conclude that if this is the opera the most self-regarding democracy in the world produces about itself, bring back the autocrats!

**111