Philip Glass, Appomattox, and Video at the Opera

Yesterday (Thursday) we saw Philip Glass’s Appomattox at the SF Opera. I had read some lukewarm reviews on the internet and heard similar sentiments from friends which lowered my expectations before attending the performance. In the end I found the opera to be somewhat uneven but alright, and I was glad to have gone as I found myself thinking a lot in the end about the opera itself, Glass’s music as a whole, and the experience of attending the opera with the use of video screens (something that I thought I would abhor but was surprised to find I really liked; more on that below).

Appomattox

I found the opening of the opera and the first 2/3 or so of Act I to be the weakest part of the work. The women singers weren’t particularly strong and that there were many of them with different qualities really accentuated the unevenness of the ensemble. For this first section I found myself hearing narration of lines that were set in a way to fit in to the harmony of that moment but that the words of the singers and the story were dominating the musical qualities of their sung lines. I had found myself a number of times of thinking of opera and when I find myself most drawn to the performance is when there is a really perfect balance of quality of text in conjunction with musicality of the lines. I find I can listen to arias and not understand the words but find the musical qualities of what is being sung to be quite strong to have a response, and I had the feeling that words aside I would not have that draw to the Appomattox for this opening section at all. The orchestral writing in this early section also wasn’t particularly strong to me though it might have been that the performance seemed little loose in timing and the stray intonation here and there did not help so much. (I certainly found the Philip Glass Ensemble live performance of Koyaanisqatsi (or was it Powaaqatsi?) a year or two ago in SF to have had problems due to performance though it was a piece I much enjoyed on recording). Some of the orchestral writing dominated the singers at time as well.

Starting at the destruction of Richmond scene things became very interesting to me. The large ensemble singing with their short gesture of descending seconds together with the staging of the bombing (performers look out on stage, lights glaring for bombs going off was reminiscent of Doctor Atomic though I felt much more effective in this work) was quite strong for me. (Listening to the chorus singing these gestures brought the Sirens movement of Debussy’s Nocturnes to mind, a piece I’m rather fond of…).

I found the second half of the opera much stronger musically and dramatically than the first half. Certainly by this time I found myself very interested in the characters of Grant and Lee, thinking it would be worth while to spend some time reading up on them and perhaps a bit more on this part of American history. The scenes of future injustice were a bit sickening to me and felt at times to be over the top, though I guess you really can’t relay those parts of history in much any other way. The music was generally of a much bigger scope for this second half than the first as was appropriate for the shaping of the drama and the story. I also liked very much how things end with the scene with all the women singing, a very gentle and tender musical moment.

Overall, I thought the work was good but inconsistent work.  There are a couple of pieces within the opera which are true gems, but in its entirety I don’t see it surviving to become a staple in the opera repetoire.

Philip Glass

Watching the opera made me think of Glass’s music as a whole and its development over time.  Within the opera I was impressed by his work in the very tenderest of scenes as well as in the biggest, most dramatic moments.  It’s a credit that he can really touch on that wide a range of human experience.  On the other hand, I also found that the unevenness to be somewhat frustrating too, with Naqoyqaatsi and White Raven coming to mind as other fairly recent works which I found both a mix of the exceptional and the unremarkable.

I found myself comparing Appomattox to John Adams’ Doctor Atomic while watching the performance. I found Glass’s experience in working as Music Theater composer (as I have read him describe himself) really showing itself as I felt the shaping of the experience to be handled much more adeptly than with the Adams work.  I have long felt English not very well suited for opera and neither of the mentioned works succeeded to change that opinion. (It was after learning to speak a little Polish and falling in love with the lyrical quality of that language did I look at English and find its accents and pacing to be so angular and stilted…)

Thinking about Glass’s music I found myself thinking that I most enjoyed the pieces of his which were most abstract (absolute music).  Even in Appomattox, I found myself most taken by the destruction of Richmond scene where the chorus was singing tones and not words. It is the moments like those which make me continue to be interested to hear new works by Glass.  I will be looking forward to experiencing what he works on next.

Video at the Opera

SF Opera introduced using a video screen in the upper balcony section which showed video footage from camera zoomed in on performers or on the stage.  When I had first heard about it I thought I would absolutely abhor it but in watching the performance last night I found I really enjoyed it!  Being up in the balcony and watching the performance with my eyes not exactly the best, I found when looking up at the screen and seeing very close up shots of the performers I found a wealth of emotion on their faces and in their body that I would never have seen or experienced without the video.  In addition to the staging of just the work on the stage, I also found myself quite interested in the “staging” on the video and the use of fades from close shots to ensemble shots, pans across the stage, and other effects that framed and shaped a lot of dramatic points in the opera.  I felt that in the same way that television can enhance and offer a more dramatic experience for sporting events, it too–if tastefully applied as I felt it was at the opera last night–could offer something which could enhance the experience.

One note though, I think if I had sat any higher than where I was (which was near the front of the balcony), and had the screen been more in my main view when looking at the stage, I think it would have been too much of a distraction from the live stage.  The balcony area at the SF Opera does rise up fairly steeply, so for future performances I think if they are marked as having video and I was looking to purchase balcony tickets I would look for them closer to the front than to the back.

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