glass notes
Pick of the Week: the civil warS: Act V – The Rome Section

civil warS on Nonesuch
Simply one of the best things Philip Glass ever composed.

The civil warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, was to be a gigantic international opera done by Robert Wilson all over the globe in 1984.  Wilson's ambition was so big that it ultimately went unrealized, never produced. Glass participated in two acts of the Wilson work. Among the parts that were done, the "Cologne" section of the work, much less substantial that Act V,  and Act V: the Rome section which premiered at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome.

The Rome section is an opera in itself.  The score is over 2 hours long (though on recording it's edited down to 80 minutes).  We get a glimpse of Wilson's staging in the liner notes to the recording and it is really out of that period where Glass and Wilson did seem totally and 100% on the same wavelength. 

The music opens with a triumphant clarion fanfare as we are swept immediately into a dreamy slow tempo low-register dreamy soundscape over which a mezzo-soprano begins singing in Latin (" Now the stars shine few and faint above a sleeping world.")  This type of bold statement is thrilling and typical of Glass at the time. One thinks of another classic Glassian example, in Akhnaten, also of 1984, the Prelude quiets down giving way to the narrator: "Open are the Double Doors of the Horizon, Unlocked are its Bolts, Clouds Darken the Sky…". I say classic Glass because whether it's the Prophecies or Pruitt Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi, Akhnaten, or the civil warS, there's an unmistakable feeling of "we're doomed."

As I see it now, in 1984, this was all very heretical in the classical music world. Here was Glass writing for a traditional Italian opera house, writing the closest thing (up until that time) to a conventional opera that he had ever done. It turns out his music could work in such a venue. 

Perhaps it was this gesture toward conventionality which first grabbed me. However, this opera is still light-years away from what people think of opera in the Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini tradition: a narrative. a love story, murder, arias, recitative…though it possesses many of those qualities albeit in a more abstract way. In Scene A, we even have a heroic Italian tenor, as Garibaldi, singing the appropriate sentiments in Italian: "…pure as torture, endured for love, and liberty!" and Robert Wilson narrating as Robert E. Lee "his hat was slouched and spattered with mud, and only another horseman rode with him as if for company and for love."  The mood of this is very much in the mood of something like the Rodrigue/Don Carlos fraternal love in Verdi's Don Carlos. Or another example is Young Mrs. Lincoln saying in Scene C "it must have been a terrible war, don't lose it, everyday is wonderful when I am with you, don't go away, it's over." These are universal human emotions which draw people in an keep them engaged.  Such simple things are the stuff of every repertoire Italian opera I can think of. Meanwhile, the music seems undeniably Wagnerian in many parts.

This is an opera. A creation in popular intent.  Glass' score is designed to reach people that way. Gone at this time are the farfisa organs and woodwinds of the classic Philip Glass Ensemble sound replaced by acoustic orchestra and trained opera voices.  This is an opera that any opera company could produce, and not just new music specialists. 

The recording's producer, Kurt Munkacsi cited the civil warS as one of the best things he ever did.  From that opening fanfare we are not only in the world of the composed Glass music, but inside Munkacsi's specially designed acoustic cathedral. The result is a sound so grand that Wagner would be jealous as no place exists in the real world.

Some of the other Glass/Wilson hallmarks are present including narration from Wilson himself, as well as Young Mrs.Lincoln's narration by Laurie Anderson in that wonderful conciliatory and maternal voice of hers (which Munkacsi said she basically did in one take, on the first take.)

All things considered the CIVIL WARS present the best of all things that I love in Glass: a particular type of modern theater-drama with incredible music.  I hope some major opera house undertakes this work again, but in the meantime I'm thankful for the amazing Nonesuch recording:

Civil Wars Selections

1 thought on “Pick of the Week: the civil warS: Act V – The Rome Section”

  1. Ah, at last someone shares my opinion about this wonderful opera, which seems to have been forgotten, hidden in the shadows of the triology.
    The recording is indeed superb, but it’s a pity that the orchestra is mixed too low in the “speeches” scenes.

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