"Rappahannock County" avoids epic sweep to tell powerful human stories

The first 10 minutes of "Rappahannock County" voices views so repugnant to most modern ears that they might as well have been written by a clever wordsmith for the Ku Klux Klan.

"Slavery is not a sin; it's sanctified by God," a Virginia preacher thunders in the first of the 23 songs divided among five operatically inclined singers in this 87-minute Civil War song cycle at the University of Richmond.

Human bondage is "a noble institution" and freeing slaves "would be against God's plan," a Southern society lady melodiously asserts. And, anyway, the impending Civil War has nothing to do with slavery, insists another citizen of Virginia's Rappahannock County. It's all about "states' rights."

Now hang in there.

This thoroughly professional, often moving and occasionally funny piece of musical theater hardly ends up where it starts out.

Operatic composer Ricky Ian Gordon, Broadway lyricist Mark Campbell, veteran stage director Kevin Newbury, their beautifully chosen singers, designers and 17-member orchestra, partly visible behind a scrim used for projections, have wonders to perform.

"Rappahannock County" was commissioned by Virginia Opera, Norfolk's Virginia Arts Festival, UR and the University of Texas at a shared cost of about $750,000 to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It premiered in Norfolk in April almost exactly 150 years after Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter.

This was money well spent.

Gordon, Campbell and company wisely chose to narrow their focus to the real and imagined denizens of one Virginia county. Instead of trying to encapsulate the war in a single plot that would be destined to failure, they wisely opted to focus on people — about 30 of them — affected by war.

"Rappahannock County" may have no sustained plot, but it hardly lacks structure or drama. It takes the war year by year. It details the trajectory of Southern white attitudes from certitude to disillusionment and despair — they're sadder, but surely wiser — as it traces the plight of blacks from bondage to a freedom that won't be all it's cracked up to be.

The result, in effect, is a patchwork quilt of Southern Americana with a lot of contemporary relevance. When a freed slave speculates that he might be president someday, for example, he coaxes gentle, knowing laughter from the audience.

"Rappahannock County" has no epic sweep. It achieves its power through the slow accretion of telling detail.

Many of the characters are unforgettable. A black soldier chooses not to kill a Confederate on the battlefield. Another Confederate soldier, only 17, dies with the rueful knowledge he's never been kissed. An old lady sells pies behind Union lines to spy on the enemy. A formerly enslaved couple celebrates their right to marry legally. An undertaker gets rich on all the fresh corpses.

Soprano Aundi Marie Moore, mezzo-soprano Faith Sherman, tenor Matthew Tuell and baritones Mark Walters and Kevin Moreno bring them to varied life, musically and dramatically, every note of the way.

The stage furnishings are rough-hewn; the costumes, homespun in black, white and earth tones. The projection of dozens of vintage Civil War photographs, illustrations and documents, to say nothing of arresting snow and battlefield-smoke effects, enhance the eye appeal and historical context of this handsome undertaking.

"Rappahannock County" will reopen later this month at the University of Texas in Austin. Don't be surprised if it becomes a programming favorite, especially in concert formats, among American symphony orchestras for decades to come.
- Roy Proctor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 15 September 2011