United States Christopher Theofanidis, Heart of a Soldier (world premiere): Soloists and orchestra, San Francisco Opera, Patrick Summers (conductor), War Memorial Opera House,San Francisco. 13.9.2011 (HS)
Rick Rescorla—Thomas Hampson
Daniel J. Hill—William Burden
Juliet, Barbara—Nadine Sierra
Tom, Ted—Michael Sumuel
Librettist—Donna di Novelli
Set Designer—Peter J. Davison
Costume Designer—Jess Goldstein
Lighting Designer—Mark Mccullough
Projection Designer—S. Katy Tucker
Chorus Director—Ian Robertson
Historical operas tread a difficult path. The more we know about the actual events, the more annoyed we get with how the stories change when transformed into opera’s big gestures and emotional wallops. Cynics apply the derogation “CNN Opera” to pieces based on the events of recent years, such as John Adams’s Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer, or X by Anthony Davis and Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace. It helps to be at a remove from the reality, so that the actual stories of the real Don Carlo or the actual Boris Godunov don’t get in the way of the opera’s treatment of them. We simply revel in the operatic version of the story, the music and the characters.
Americans are not that far removed from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which form the backdrop for Heart of a Soldier, a new opera receiving its world premiere performances this month at San Francisco Opera. Wisely, composer Christopher Theofanidis, librettist Donna di Novelli and director Francesca Zambello do not attempt to make the piece about 9/11 itself, when two planes hijacked by terrorists brought down the 110-story World Trade Center towers in New York, but depict the day as the climax to the story of Rick Rescorla. Born in Cornwall, the career soldier who fought in Rhodesia and Vietnam led 2,700 employees to safety, as head of security for Morgan Stanley, before the second tower collapsed with him inside, as he was helping first responders.
It wasn’t the first time he acted heroically, as outlined in the 2003 book by James B. Stewart on which the opera is based. In Act I, which traces Rescorla’s military life, he kills a lion terrorizing a village . There he befriends Dan Hill, an American soldier, joins the U.S. Army with him to train a platoon and in 1965, ignoring orders to the contrary, saves his buddy in the first clash between U.S. troops and the North Vietnamese army. As Act I cements the bond with Dan, Act II introduces a late-in-life romance with Susan, his second wife, and establishes that Rick and Dan, still working together, recognize that the WTC towers are vulnerable to an attack. The two strategize on how to get their charges out safely by training them to evacuate. In the sensitively and powerfully staged finale, the individual relationships with Dan and Susan come together movingly with Rescorla’s military mind-set.
The storytelling through all this is crystal clear, a rare achievement in opera, but all that exposition and plot occupies most of the compact two-hour running time. One could wish for more moments like the only real aria in the piece, when baritone Thomas Hampson (as Rescorla) muses on all the elements that made his who he is—his military training, his sense of honor and commitment to his compatriots, his joy at finding a lifelong friend in Dan and soulmate in Susan.
Working in traditional operatic forms, Theofanidis, whose most often-performed work is a big orchestral piece Rainbow Body, relies much more on big orchestral gestures than on writing for the voice. He clearly is more comfortable working with an orchestra; the opera has undeniably powerful musical climaxes, a complex scene that brings Act I to a strong musical close, and an especially effective extended finale. Using consonance much more than dissonance, the musical language resembles that of lush, romantic film composers of the 1940s such as Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza. But in economy of form, the conversational style of the vocal line and ability to build up inexorably to a mighty climax, the composer who springs to mind is Leoš Janáček.
The Act I finale, which depicts Rescorla’s first wedding, encapsulates much of what it so impressive, and less so, about this score. After a succession of military scenes, we hear dance music and see a party (a familiar device in opera). Rescorla clearly is less interested in his bride, who comes off as a cipher, than in his army buddies who are struggling to readjust to civilian life. Dan recalls the calm of in the Muslims he saw in Beirut, and decides to convert to Islam and fight with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. We see and hear his vision of an imam intoning the call to prayer, which the composer weaves into the intricate finale in a beautiful musical coup de theatre. But then, in Act II, the only reference made to Dan’s Islamic conversion is his knowledge of how Osama bin Laden’s charisma poses a danger to theU.S. That’s it? There is much more in Stewart’s book.
Another misstep might have been having the audience stand and sing the national anthem before the opera begins. It smacks of trying too hard to push the emotional buttons. It’s not needed.
Conductor Patrick Summers led the orchestra and singers – heard in the second performance Tuesday – in a strong reading both musically and emotionally. The three key roles are cast well. Tenor William Burden creates a realistic character in Dan and sings with ringing tonal clarity and lyric polish. Soprano Melody Moore (Susan) captures telling physical gestures and the rush of romance in her too-short scenes with Hampson. And as Rescorla, Hampson creates a flesh-and-blood character and sings with his signature resonant baritone and directness. Though he does not attempt a Cornish accent, no doubt an American audience will hear his patrician diction as vaguely English. At any rate, the simplicity of his approach is perfect.
Other standouts in the large ensemble include baritone Michael Sumuel (scheduled to sing Schaunard next summer at Glyndebourne) as a medic who dies in Rescorla’s arms in Vietnam, and Mohannad Mchallah as the imam singing the call to prayer in the Act I finale.
The sets, designed by Peter J. Davison, suggest the towers with two four-story depictions that hover in the background (after a brief prologue sets the scene of the morning of the attacks). Costumes by Jess Goldstein reflect their respective eras, and effective projections by S. Katy Tucker make scene changes unobtrusive and let the music flow without pause.
With any new work, especially one based on things we know so well, there is a temptation to judge it on what we think it could have been rather than what it is. Heart of a Soldier holds the stage and draws in an audience with a powerful story, telling moments and shattering climaxes. It has outstanding singing and operatic acting. That ought to be enough.