September 14, 2011

San Francisco Opera's "Heart of a Soldier"

Heart of a Soldier, The Twin Towers
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.

Too Soon?

It is difficult to predict when it becomes appropriate to tackle artistically a tragedy like the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. At what point do the images and personal stories become history instead of a way to capitalize emotionally and financially on such a distressing moment? Equally important is the decision of how to depict these episodes — to decide how a work of art takes real-life incidents and transforms them into universal truths. Does the artist focus on the large-scale historical event, or does he choose to focus on the personal?
For its world premiere of Heart of a Soldier at San Francisco Opera, the creators chose to concentrate on the personal story of Morgan Stanley’s security head Rick Rescorla, whose actions led over 2,700 World Trade Center South Tower workers to safety, only to lose his own life when he reentered the building to search for stragglers. The opera focuses on his journey from childhood in Cornwall, England, to his role in the tragic events on 9/11. An exploration of a life that culminated in those heroic actions is a story worth examining.
Unfortunately, it was poorly told.
The libretto by Donna Di Novelli (based on the James B. Stewart book Heart of a Soldier) is all exposition — a linear docudrama that plays fast and loose with Rescorla’s biography — jumping episodically from Rescorla’s childhood idolization of Yanks in World War II, through his mercenary soldiering in Rhodesia, subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Army and service in Vietnam, to his first marriage — then inexplicably jumps to Rescorla at his job at the World Trade Center and second marriage, leaving a twenty-year gap in its wake. In the didactic and cliché-ridden script, all moments are given equivalent time and importance, and the audience is left wondering if events or the gaps in-between weighed equally in Rescorla’s character development and whether they occurred over three days, three minutes, or three years.
Director Francesca Zambello adhered to the tone set by the libretto. Every scene was pitched at the same level. Battles scenes, a wedding party, the collapse of the two towers — there was no modulation of tone between the events. It was difficult to feel any attachment to the individuals as the script allowed little time for character development in this rush of exposition. So, at the end, although we have a visceral and historic consciousness of the towers’ collapse, this emotion exists separately from our relationship to the people portrayed.
Add to that a score by Christopher Theofanidis that only found melody in a dirge-like Cornish fight song, and you have a problem. Like most modern operas, Heart of a Soldier is sung-through. When done well, as in the works of Wagner, the supporting musical lines can be segregated from the vocal and appreciated for their own beauty. Frequently, however, contemporary composers neglect this aspect of sung-through material. Some at least, intersperse the dialogue with melodic arias and/or eminently excerptable orchestral material like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” (Nixon in China). Theofanidis’ score, like the libretto to which it is attached, pushes the narrative without attaining a beauty of its own.
This is a shame, as the cast is up to the usual San Francisco Opera standards — that is, high. Renowned baritone Thomas Hampson as Rescorla, tenor William Burden as his friend and comrade-in-arms Dan Hill, and Melody Moore as second wife Susan all gave excellent vocal performances.
Still, an opera company is known by more than its star performers. It is the chorus and comprimario (ensemble players) that give a company its strength and power. And San Francisco Opera is well served by these supporting cast members. Most notable was bass-baritone Michael Sumuel in his San Francisco Opera debut, whose strong and convincing portrayal of both the Rhodesian bartender and, in a later scene, a Vietnam medic, was the most affecting and convincing of the evening. Soprano Nadine Sierra as a soldier’s girlfriend, and Mohannad Mchallah as the Imam, also delivered strong performances.
William Burden (Dan Hill) & Mohannad Mchallah (Imam)
Photo by Cory Weaver, Courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Mark McCullough’s superb lighting design gave visual depth and interest to Peter J. Davison’s serviceable sets. The projection design by S. Katy Tucker varied greatly from an amateurish vision of a prowling lion to a sophisticated use of the technology in creating a minaret from the bare bones of the tower structure. Conductor Patrick Summers led the orchestra with the force and commitment audiences have come to expect from this group.
Ultimately, this was an unsatisfying tribute to both the man and the event. Maybe it’s too soon; maybe the events are still too fresh, too raw. If Heart of a Soldier is any indication, we need more time before turning this particular historic incident into art.


San Francisco Opera: Heart of a Soldier
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

In repertory through Sept. 30


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