A courthouse in Virginia proved to be a pivotal point in history as it signaled the end of the Civil War and the struggle for Civil Rights. The opera libretto, “Appomattox” takes audiences down this winding road during its world premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
The revised version of “Appomattox” was conceived by composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton who first launched the opera in its orginal form in 2007 as a one act play. Glass and Hampton trace the fall of Richmond in Act I and step into 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights movement in Act II. Director Tazewell Thompson makes his Washington National Opera as he directs the opera in which Soloman Howard and Tom Fox and the rest of the cast give impressive, pitch- perfect performances.
“Appomattox” starts with a chorus of black soldiers robustly singing “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.” It’s a stirring, pounding number, but as the opera unfolds, it gives way to the realities of war as the wives of Grant and Lee express their feelings about the tumultuous times. By bringing these thoughts to life the opera reflects the pain and frustration experienced by those in close proximity to the ravages of war and its trickle-down effect on loved ones.
There’s a great exchange between Abraham Lincoln (Tom Fox) and Frederick Douglass (Soloman Howard) at Lincoln’s second inaugural. Douglass passionately seizes the opportunity to call for the right of blacks to vote. And it’s not lost on the audience that Douglass’ companion, Mrs. Dorsey (Leah Hawkins) opines about the possibility of women also gaining that right.
T. Morris Chester (Frederick Ballentine), the only black correspondent for a major daily newspaper during the Civil War serves as a navigator of sorts as he insists on his right to cover the predictable defeat of the south. His impassioned words give voice to many blacks in the era and gives insight into how deeply the disparity cuts away at the soul.
The scene in Act I between Robert E. Lee (David Pittsinger) and Ulysses S. Grant (Richard Paul Fink) is especially compelling. As the war draws to a close, the two generals exchange letters in a game of cat and mouse where the mouse (Lee) tries to drag out the inevitability of surrender through skillful word play and the cat (Grant) tries to allow a fellow soldier to surrender with a modicum of dignity. When at last Lee joins Grant at Appomattox Courthouse to conclude the war between the states, the honor of both men shines through.
Act II shows how much and how little has changed since the end of the Civil War. It is here where “Appomattox” really takes flight. Act I set the stage and served as a bridge to what lay ahead as Chester painstakingly recounts the killing of dozens of black men during the Colifax massacre in 1873.
The wake for murdered activist Jimmie Lee Jackson opens Act II. It is here that we first hear the resounding voice of Martin Luther King Jr., skillfully embodied by Howard) as he offers exhortation and comfort to the mourners. Howard is commanding in the role, bringing the mourners under his sway while they simultaneously long for him to say more, illustrating the dichotomy between faith and the quest for justice.
There are many powerful scenes, including exchanges between King and President Johnson (Tom Fox) where they deal with the weighty issues of passing the Civil Rights Act. Fox brings the out-sized character of Johnson to life, including his profanity-laced conversations and penchant for using the restroom while conducting meetings.
There are other great performances including Melody Moore (Mrs. Grant/ Vi Liuzzo) and Chrystal E. Williams (Elizabeth Keckley/Coretta Scott King). Aleksey Bogdanov is in fine form as segregationist Governor George Wallace.
The opera concludes with racist Edgar Ray Killen (Pittsinger) graphically recounting the slaying of three civil rights workers in 1964. The retelling is vile; the language raw. Glass and Hampton have this narrative go on for what seems like an extended period and it is clearly meant to drive home the ugliness of blind hatred.
However, that bleak retelling gives way to the women coming onto the stage, one by one, and pleading together for an end to this type of sorrow and imploring the world to reject the vestiges of racism and prejudice.
“Appomattox” is worth seeing more than once. Glass and Hampton got it right: Act II was needed and the opera leaves no stone unturned in portraying hopes and dreams juxtaposed with struggles and frustration.
“Appomattox” runs through Nov. 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $25-$300. 202-467-4600.