Philip Glass' "Appomattox" --in its world premiere at San Francisco Opera -- emerges a frequently potent but uneven work.

Cramming an ambitious agenda of historical, domestic, contemporary and metaphorical layers into a relatively brief evening by operatic standards, Philip Glass’ “Appomattox”–in its world premiere at San Francisco Opera — emerges a frequently potent but uneven work. Glass’ score, Christopher Hampton’s verbose libretto and Robert Woodruff’s abstract staging all fluctuate in strength, one often shoring up another. The sum is, for all its flaws, still that too-rare thing: a vital new opera that communicates something relevant to the audience on both aesthetic and dramatic planes.

General director David Gockley’s first San Francisco Opera commission (though he’s worked with Glass on projects for nearly a quarter-century) cannily delivers a timely antiwar message within a complex take on superficially familiar American history.

Rather than focusing on the battles and the assassination of President Lincoln in chronicling the Civil War’s grim final chapters, “Appomattox” concentrates on more intimate aspects of the war.

The opera begins (and ends) with the “first ladies” of the era — Julia Dent Grant (Rhoslyn Jones), Mary Curtis Lee (Elza Van Den Heever) and Mary Todd Lincoln (Heidi Melton) — expressing dread, wifely concern, and occasional peevishness.Meanwhile, the Confederacy lies in ruins, but surrender is still anathema to some surviving ears, including those of commander Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft). President Lincoln (Jeremy Galyon) and his own commander-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) make plans to end the conflict as peaceably as possible.

Swerving sometimes unsteadily but adventurously from big-picture moments to close-up ones, the opera provides one vivid footnote at this point as black journalist T. Morris Chester (Noah Stewart) exultantly relates the joy of freed local slaves — writing his story from the speaker’s chair of the abandoned Confederate Congress.

The shorter second act is essentially one long scene broken up by digressive smaller ones that eventually span from the opera’s basic time frame (the first week of April 1865) to the present day. At a private home in Appomattox, Va., the two commanders agree upon a scenario for surrender that leaves the South’s remaining dignity and resources intact, its officers and soldiers free to return home.

Yet the conciliatory, healing tone signaled here is undercut by glimpses of the future — not least the ironic, immediate one in which the unfortunate Appomattox homeowner’s place is looted clean.

Less amusingly, black journalist Chester returns to describe 1873 Ku Klux Klan lynchings of black voters. Four ’60s activists sing “A hundred years and we ain’t free/We’re marching to Montgomery,” this anthemic interlude building to full choral strength.

Chillingly, wheelchair-bound Edgar Ray Killen (Philip Skinner), the Baptist minister-cum-KKK organizer convicted in 2005 of conspiring to murder three 1964 civil rights workers, sings unrepentantly about being a “martyr” to the “cause” of white power.

“Appomattox” is often most effective in such simple, emotionally direct sequences. It’s least effective during the lengthy passages of strategizing and negotiation that, despite fine performances, bog down in verbiage that’s nearly impossible to musicalize excitingly.

Glass is not the most dramatic of composers, and to an extent the mosaic of scenes here doesn’t play to his strength of slowly accumulative force. But the score’s diverse orchestration, occasional trad-song motifs and other colors will no doubt deepen with further listening.

Woodruff has created a characteristically stark, severe yet busy visual environment dominated by Riccardo Hernandez’s striking set designs. Composed primarily of steel and glass, their abstracts suggest both the North’s industrial power and war’s pitiless destruction. By contrast, Gabriel Berry’s costumes are soberly period-faithful.

Conductor Dennis Russell Davies and orchestra give a strong, persuasive introduction to a score that utilizes the Opera Chorus to sparing but powerful effect.

Appomattox

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco; 3,252 Seats; $275 Top

Production

A San Francisco Opera presentation of an opera in two acts by Philip Glass. Libretto by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Robert Woodruff. Conductor, Dennis Russell Davies.

Creative

Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; wigs and makeup, Gerd Mairandres; fight choreography, David Lefkowich; chorus director, Ian Robertson. Opened, reviewed Oct. 5, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Robert E. Lee - Dwayne Croft Ulysses S. Grant - Andrew Shore Julia Dent Grant - Rhoslyn Jones Mary Todd Lincoln - Heidi Melton Mary Curtis Lee - Elza Van Den Heever Julia Agnes Lee - Ji Young Yang Elizabeth Keckley - Kendall Gladen Edward Alexander - Chad Shelton T. Morris Chester - Noah Stewart Edgar Ray Killen - Philip Skinner Abraham Lincoln - Jeremy Galyon
With: Richard Walker, Torlef Borsting, John Minagro, Jere Torkelsen, Virginia Pluth, Claudia Siefer, Antoine Garth, Kevin Courtemanche, Alexander Taite, David Kekuewa, Frederick Matthews, William Pickersgill, Anthony Russell.
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