Even Glass' music deviates long enough from its steadfast pedal note, syncopation, and arpeggio-belabored course to offer a little relief. The composer's sprightly, martial settings of texts from several original Civil War songs like "First Arkansas Marching Song" and "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" for the male chorus evoke the spirit of the era. Elsewhere, a lovely, sighing English horn motif heightens the pain of the sad closing scene. Unfortunately, the general excesses of the mise-en-scène coupled with Glass' unyielding pummeling of our ears serves to undermine the opera's small subtleties. In the most exhausting scene of all, for instance, a vast chorus of woebegone, displaced civilians tramples noisily across the stage before forming a tableau and wailing "Aaaaaah! Aaaaaah! Aaaaaah!" repeatedly for what feels like an eternity. Meanwhile cannons blast, guns fire, and lights flash. By the end of this assault on our senses, I suddenly understood what had happened to Grant's migraine. It had been passed on to us.

When, in the final moments of the opera, several of the aforementioned horse carcasses are hoisted skywards only this time dripping with blood, it's hard to continue looking at the stage. It's not that they are particularly disturbing, though they're hardly a lovely sight. It's the embarrassment one feels at the visual conceit. Instead of allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the parallels between the lives lost in the Civil War and the lynchings of the civil rights era, Glass and his cohorts clobber us over the head. Never in the history of opera has "flogging a dead horse" been so explicitly realized.

A Civil War battlefield scene set to the music of Philip Glass.
Terrence McCarthy
A Civil War battlefield scene set to the music of Philip Glass.

Details

Libretto by Christopher Hampton. Music by Philip Glass. Through October 24. Tickets are $25-275; call 864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com.
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (between Grove and Fulton), S.F.

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Appomattox may leave us in doubt as to Gockley's commissioning skills. On the other hand, it does leave us certain of two things: That there will always be wars, and that Glass' music will always be the same.

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