‘Appomattox’: Opera of the soul

Confound that Philip Glass! How he has managed to co-create a gripping, heart-wrenching, socially prescient, and deeply human new opera, all while writing dirgelike variations of the same repeated chords, rising and falling arpeggios and simple drones that he’s composed for well over 35 years, is beyond me. Nonetheless, in the San Francisco Opera world premiere of “Appomattox,” which runs for six more performances through Oct. 24, he’s created a musical/theatrical experience so thoroughly involving as to invoke thoughts of “masterpiece.”

Kudos go equally to Oscar/Tony-winning librettist Christopher Hampton, whose time-traveling libretto communicates the essence of characters and situations, as well as differences between the worldviews of men, women, blacks and whites with unforced directness; director Robert Woodruff, whose stage movements superbly projects characters’ inner feelings; award-winning set designer Riccardo Hernandez, who unflinchingly captures war’s brutality; conductor Dennis Russell Davies (a longtime Glass collaborator), who delivers the score from inside out; SFO General Director David Gockley (his fifth project with Glass); and the large cast of singers. The chorus of the Sable Army of African Descent (the Union’s Negro Brigade) had some in the audience near tears.

If ever there were an ensemble production, where every note, word, and movement seems of one piece, this is it.

“Appomattox’s” ostensible subject matter, the concluding days of the bloodiest conflict to occur on American soil, addresses far more than the war between abolitionists and slaveholders. It is about the tremendous moral and intellectual character of Grant and Lee, who exhibit qualities of dignity and compassion largely absent from today’s so-called leaders. It also addresses the legacy of the Civil War, and the repercussions of racial inequality many suffer on a daily basis. It is past and present simultaneously, which makes it as relevant as you can get.

It is also a tremendous vehicle for its large cast. Baritone Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee) is magnificent, his imposing voice and bearing creating a general of dignity and fairness. Andrew Shore (Ulysses S. Grant) acquits himself well in the tougher job of portraying the less attractive general whose humanity registers more by deed than bearing.

The opera also features a host of Adler Fellows, many well on their way to promising careers. Elza van den Heever (Mary Custis Lee), who recently triumphed as a last-minute Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni,” sings with arresting power while miraculously transforming herself into a wheelchair-bound, racist arthritic. Rhoslyn Jones (Julia Dent Grant), albeit a little wobbly in her high range, impresses with her heartfelt simplicity, while the commanding voice of powerhouse Heidi Melton (Mary Todd Lincoln) makes you sit up and listen.

Bravo to Noah Stewart (T. Morris Chester), whose seizing portrayal promises a fine career.I must also single out the gratifying contributions of John Minagro (Gen. Howell Cobb), Chad Shelton (Brig. Gen. Edward Alexander) and Philip Skinner (Edgar Ray Killen). Most of all, bravo to Glass, Hampton, Woodruff, Hernandez and Davies, whose non-prettified vision tells it like it is.

Appomattox

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18 Oct. 24, 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Oct. 16, Oct. 20

Tickets: $15 to $275

Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com

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