Classical Music Review: New Releases

Philip Glass & Robert Wilson - the CIVIL warS, Act V.  the Civil warS: a tree is best measured when it is down; Act V - The Rome Section. Music by Philip Glass; Text by Robert Wilson and Maita Di Niscemi.  Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano; Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppe Sabbatini, tenor; Zheng Zhou, baritone; Stephen Morscheck, bass; Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, narrators. The Morgan State University Choir; Dr. Nathan Carter, music director. American Composers Orchestra; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor.  Nonesuch CD 79487-2 (77'39).

Like many theatrical ventures, Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS has had a somewhat patchy history.  Created for Los Angeles's 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, the five-part, multi-nation, multi-composer epic never made it to curtain time at that city's Shrine Auditorium.  Still, several parts have been staged in different countries, and the knee play interludes, with music by David Byrne, have traveled.  Composer Philip Glass's contribution to the CIVIL warS' concluding Act V has been seen at the Rome Opera, the Netherlands Opera, ART in Cambridge, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  The "Rome Section" has also been performed as a concert piece by Neal Stulberg and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and by the American Composers Orchestra, with its music director and co-founder Dennis Russell Davies, at Carnegie Hall.  Davies, who leads a superb new Nonesuch recording, has championed Glass's music for a very long time.  (Sadly, two other Glass conductors, Bruce Ferden and Christopher Keene, are dead from AIDS.)

Wilson has his champions, too.  His "digital opera" Monsters of Grace, also done with Glass, recently ended a successful international tour.  Thought I haven't seen any of the CIVIL warS, except its knee plays, the music Glass has written for Wilson's "Rome Section" far surpasses the scores for two other productions I've seen by this director.  It couples his trademark sound -- long sequences of broken chords, syncopated rhythms and rotating harmonies -- with expansive and often very expressive vocal melodies.

But what of the story?  Well, as is usual with both Wilson and Glass, you don't get much of one.  This director's "theater of images" conjures figures in dream-like mise en scène which the composer injects with musical emotion.  Yet what little story there is -- an empty battlefield at dawn presided over by singing figures, mid-19th century soldiers, and mythological deities in the forest primeval -- has been artfully assembled by Maita Di Niscemi from evocative fragments from two of Seneca's Hercules plays, in both Latin and Italian; as well as bits written by Robert E. Lee, Garibaldi and Robert Wilson; and material of her own invention.  This makes a very powerful libretto which works through association -- the opening section, for example, recalls the storm music at the beginning of Verdi's Otello, and the high-lying parts for Lincoln (baritone Zheng Zhou) and Garibaldi (tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini), in particular, reflect a kind of florid heroic style.  The monumental chorus at the opening of the fourth and final scene reflects, without ever really sounding like, the Stravinsky of Oedipus Rex.

Glass also reharmonizes the old Southern hymn "Jacob's Ladder," which treads its way through the third scene, under Lee's speaking voice (the part here read quite wonderfully by Wilson), and it sets it as a soprano vocalise too.  There are big brass band parts, complete with snare drum, and especially exquisite writing for string quartet at one point, and winds -- clarinet, bass clarinet, and flutes, in particular.  But what's perhaps most special about the CIVIL warS' Rome Section is the range and variety of the vocal and instrumental color, and the stunning and unexpected changes of texture.

Glass gets a big emotional range here too, bigger in a sense than the more tableaux-like effects in his second and third operas, Satyagraha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984).  Or put another way, Glass's music in the CIVIL warS has a personal human dimension somewhat lacking in those two rather ceremonial pieces.  Like any good theater composer, Glass puts himself in the place of the story so that the emotions are probably his as well.  A strong cast -- mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Earth Mother and Mrs. Lincoln, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Snow Owl and Hercules's mother Alcmene, bass Stephen Morscheck as her son, and Laurie Anderson in the speaking part of Mrs. Lincoln -- puts those emotions over, to thrilling and often very moving effect.  Opera is, after all, about acting with the voice, and everyone, including the Morgan State University Choir, understand that to a tee.  Dennis Russell Davies leads a powerful, finely detailed and thoroughly sensitive performance, and his American Composers Orchestra plays like angels.  Full texts and an illuminating essay by David Wright are also included.

Michael McDonagh
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