Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions
So the end of October's looming (WTF?), which means that the local playhouses have smartly flavored their seasons with a strong dose of the macabre. Last week I finally got to catch the end of ACT's "Sweeney Todd" run (before it heads out on its national tour), and Thursday night caught a last-minute seat at the opera for the Philip Glass world premiere new work set at the end of the Civil War, "Appomattox." The combined blood-and-guts quotient was plenty to satisfy any Halloweenie tendencies I'm feeling right now.
"Sweeney Todd" is, of course, one of Stevie Sondheim's greatest, his first big smash (1973, I think?) that really solidified his status as top dog of dark-and-mindful Broadway content. I hadn't been particularly familiar with this one, other than the breathtaking and heartbreaking ballad "Joanna," which generally gets some regular play in collections of his best songs. This production is famously stripped down, bare, stark, having transferred from first the West End and then B'way after winning mega Tonys and garnering acclaim for the way director John Doyle (a Brit) retooled the score and the staging to allow the principals to sing, act, AND play all of the orchestration. So you have Joanna on cello, and Anthony on the piano, and the Beggar Woman rocking out on clarinet, when not singing. The result is a fluid, dynamic, vaguely post-modern disjunction of a set, not really something you can place in a time or setting, but which flows so consistently that you are always watching the songs and the action twisting and turning and perpetually spinning along. Which feels fundamentally Sondheimian.
So as a production, most everything was excellent; but I have to say, it's such a bizarro grotesque niche little subject matter, this barber who slits his customers' throats and bakes them in pies to sell for profit - that I found myself searching for some greater wisdom, some looming existential meaning, some life truth to take away from it, as most pieces of art tend to offer, and in that regard, it left me hanging a bit, a little hungry, not quite satiated (though the twist at the end does give a touch of that, in terms of regret and choice and hurling ourselves into not-quite-well-considered actions before we know whether those are the best decisions). But I would definitely recommend seeing it if this particular company heads your way on tour, if only to marvel at the diverse skills of the singers/actors/orchestra members rockin' it onstage. Talk about triple threats.
On the equally macabre end, Glass's "Appomattox" dives right into that moment when Grant and Lee met in a small house at Appomattox and signed the surrender papers that ended the Civil War. Another moment in time, another niche topic, although the writers make more of an effort to expand the ruminations on war and race and struggle and oppression into modernity in the course of the second act, sometimes to great success and at other points, a little sophomorically. The music is classic Glass, tumbling and turning and rushing and flowing in constant crescendo and descrescendo, and there were moments when I wondered if I wasn't listening to the soundtrack from "The Hours" instead. But the orchestration is poignant (if at moments overbearing the voices), and the baritone work from Grant and Lee in particular heart-stopping. The wives of the politicians of the era - Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant, etc. - provide sorrowful counterpoint to the business at hand, which bookends the production in a mindful reflection on war and grief and the endless perpetuation of death and destruction and really, what for?
Aesthetically the production is at once eerily, hollowly post-modern and strikingly bloody. Four life-size horse carcasses, dripping blood and hanging from ropes from the ceiling, set the tone for the set, filling the gilt opera house with the stench of death and rotting flesh. The colors of the production, all greys and oranges and reds, suit the anger and the passion of the war theme, while being at once too bright and too deathly to ever match the pulsing melancholy of the music.
It's certainly not an unadulterated success; the libretto is clunky at times, the transitions awkward, and some of the staging obvious and uninspired. But as a piece of work that seeks to ruminate on the sorrows and pointlessness of war, it succeeds. And Glass's pensive style seems particularly suited to that project.