Rappahannock County: Opera News, 2011

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War started, related skirmishes still break out, and not just at battlefield reenactment sites. Rappahannock County, a music-theater work by Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell created for the Fifteenth Virginia Arts Festival, underlines the still-smoldering issues, from states’ rights to civil rights, that have never been fully settled.

As one of the African-American characters sings in a post-Emancipation song, "Bound to Be," "Our hearts, why, they will just explode with all the new respect we’re showed." So we’ll be equal by and by … when pigs can fly … or the day they name me President." The irony of that line, given the "birther" conspiracies then freshly swirling around the country’s first African-American chief executive, was likely not lost on the audience that greeted Rappahannock County enthusiastically on April 16 at the Harrison Opera House.

Gordon and Campbell have fashioned a ninety-minute piece that might be called an operatic song cycle – a succession of solo and ensemble numbers, grouped into five parts, covering each year of the Civil War. The work is structured something like a photograph album, a point reinforced in the premiere production, fluently directed by Kevin Newbury, when cast members gathered in a group at center stage at the opening and closing, as if to face a camera. The use of historic photos and other projected imagery (Wendall Harrington designed the projections and the few onstage props) added to that sense of snapshots being taken out, memories being triggered.

Campbell conjures up more than two dozen individuals – a pro-slavery preacher, soldiers of both races, slaves, a telegraph operator, an embalmer, etc. – who experienced directly the causes and effects of the war. The use of those personal voices (five cast members assume multiple roles) gives Rappahannock County a good deal of dramatic weight. Although a twelve-tone row served as a starting point for the composer, Gordon’s neo-Romantic leaning is most readily apparent in the score, along with his gift for subtly shaded orchestral coloring. There are occasional Stephen Foster-ish turns; other passages allude to ragtime and 1880s music-hall tunes, not to mention Gershwin and maybe a dash of Sondheim. At his most eloquent, Gordon creates mini-arias fueled by refined lyricism. A poignant case is "Making Maps," the song of a cartographer lamenting how his work is now used "for spoiling valleys " for bloodying rivers"; Britten-esque melismas add to the dark beauty of the vocal line.

Not everything fits together or flows smoothly in Rappahannock County. For all its singable quality, the score could use more thoroughly distinctive, indelible melodies. Their cleverness notwithstanding, Campbell’s rhymed verses don’t entirely avoid awkwardness or cliché. Still, the work exerts a cumulative force. And the Virginia Arts Festival, an ambitious enterprise spreading diverse cultural activity over two months throughout the Hampton Roads region, gave the new piece (co-commissioned by Virginia Opera) a solid, effective launch.

A chamber orchestra, placed upstage, responded vividly to Rob Fisher’s sensitive conducting, as cast members moved smoothly from scene to scene, offering uniformly expressive flair and clear diction. (Top notes were not quite so consistent.) Baritone Mark Walters revealed a particularly warm, communicative tone; his account of "Making Maps" was one of the evening’s most affecting passages. Another baritone, Kevin Moreno, delivered the sarcasm of "Bound to Be" with terrific bite; he also tapped tellingly into the irony and pain of "I Walk Away," a scene involving a black Union soldier sparing the life of a wounded Confederate.

Aundi Marie Moore used her appealing soprano to tender effect in "All I Ever Known," a compelling, bittersweet ballad of a former slave feeling lost outside the house where she has toiled. Tenor Matthew Tuell did stylish singing as a dying solider in "I Seen Snow." And Faith Sherman’s rich mezzo found powerful outlets in the songs of Southern ladies, one extolling the "noble institution that even our Negroes don’t condemn"; the other, a nurse lamenting "the light retreating from the gaze" of the wounded young men from "this failed crusade."

– Tim Smith, Opera News, 16 April 2011