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Elza van den Heever as Mary Custis Lee and Ji Young Yang as Julia Agnes Lee.
One of the most powerful moments in "Appomattox," the new Philip Glass opera about the Civil War, isn't about the Civil War at all.

Midway through the second act, bass-baritone Philip Skinner, singing the role of Baptist preacher and Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen, sits alone onstage recalling how he ordered the murder of three Civil Rights workers in 1964. Hunched in a wheelchair, his voice a rasping drawl, he describes the shocking acts of violence set in motion at his command. "I'm proud of what I done," he sings.

As its title suggests, Glass's opera, which made its world premiere Friday in a new San Francisco Opera production, focuses on the signing of the treaty forged by generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, marking the end of "the war to end all wars."

But Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, are just as concerned with what happened after Appomattox - the ways that the unresolved enmity of North vs. South, black vs. white, brother vs. brother, seeped into the fabric of society for generations to come.

The result is much more than a simple history lesson. Stark, haunting and darkly elegiac, "Appomattox," which is the 22nd opera by America's most prolific living composer, is a far-reaching fantasia that probes deeply into our collective national consciousness.

Whether its specifically American themes will find a place in the international opera repertoire is anybody's guess.


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Yet Friday's opening night performance - the first of seven through Oct. 24 at the War Memorial Opera House - was a significant achievement for this company. Commissioned by San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, with bold staging by Robert Woodruff and luminous musical direction by conductor Dennis Russell Davies, "Appomattox" received a top-flight first production.

Glass and Hampton follow the outline of the war's final days, from the battle of Richmond to the historic meeting between Grant and Lee at Appomattox. Yet audiences expecting a documentary are in for a surprise. There are no onstage battles, no body counts. It's the psychological wounds - of the principal characters, and the nation as a whole - that matter here.

Woodruff and his design team - Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Gabriel Berry (costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting) - evoke a grimly surreal vision from the outset. A trio of horse carcasses hangs suspended from the ceiling. Orderlies dump carts full of amputated limbs into a pit. Refugees fleeing Richmond stop, aghast, as the city explodes before their eyes.

The opera begins with a mournful quintet sung by women - Julia Grant, Mary Lee and her daughter; Mary Lincoln and her maid. "War is always sorrowful," they sing, "let this be the last time." A chorus of widows places photos of the dead at the edge of the stage.

Hampton's libretto is exquisitely crafted, and the plot moves forward on historical details: letters between Grant and Lee, negotiating points and practicalities. But the most interesting moments come when the narrative slips off the rail. Grant, confiding in Julia, reveals his horror at the sight of blood; Mary Lincoln recounts the President's dream of his own death. In Act II, the opera leaps into the 20th century: a report by journalist T. Morris Chester on the massacre of black Union soldiers gives way to an anthem sung by 1960s civil rights marchers.

Glass's score is the connective tissue. Characteristically spare and rhythmic, it moves forward unrelentingly. The opening threnody is sung to an affecting theme for dark strings and woodwinds; an offstage hymn set to an authentic Civil War "Tenting Song" is warmed by softly muted brass. There's a roiling episode for the battle of Richmond, a grim march (nicely staged by Woodruff) to accompany Lincoln's dream and an agitated melody for the looting that follows the signing of the treaty. Davies, a superb conductor making his long overdue S.F. Opera debut with this production, summoned a magnificent performance from the Opera orchestra.

The cast, which features a number of San Francisco Opera Adler fellows, brought it all to life with tremendous vigor. Soprano Rhoslyn Jones was the standout as an affecting, strong-voiced Julia Grant; sopranos Elza van den Heever (as a peevish Mary Lee), Heidi Melton (Mary Lincoln) and Ji Young Yang (Julia Lee) also made indelible contributions. Mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen was an articulate Elizabeth Keckley.

The men were also well cast. Glass wrote the leading roles for two baritones, and Andrew Shore (Grant) and Dwayne Croft (Lee) sang them handsomely. Jeremy Galyon was a resonant Lincoln, and Noah Stewart made an urgent Chester. Jere Torkelsen (Rawlins), Richard Walker (Eli Parker), John Minagro (Cobb) and Chad Skelton (Alexander) filled out the cast ably. The San Francisco Opera Chorus sang well as soldiers, refugees, freed slaves and Civil Rights workers.

Yet nothing quite approached the impact of Skinner's malignant Killen. His scene, delivered with a minimum of inflection, isn't operatic in the conventional sense. It still speaks volumes. The events at Appomattox Courthouse may have ended the Civil War. But "Appomattox" gives eloquent voice to the battle still raging just beneath the skin.

What: The S.F. Opera presents "Appomattox"
Where: War Memorial Opera Housev When: Through Oct. 24
How Much: $15-$275
Call: 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com