We immediately knew that we were not before San Francisco’s altar to operatic art but rather at an altar of national sentiment. Christopher Theofanidis and Donna di Novelli’s Heart of a Soldier is not great art, nor is it political or historical tragedy. It is what it sets out to be — an account. Strangely, and perhaps this was its hidden intention, it distills the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center to some very small components — a few men and women whose lives were and are simply insignificant to the larger historical perspectives of the twenty-first century.
San Francisco Opera pulled out its biggest guns to accomplish this task. Ring director Francesca Zambello created a slick and smart production, minimal in concept though maximal in execution (it was complex). It toyed with a few levels of two white high rise towers, a few scenic screens, some with projections, and a couple of sliding platforms.
The libretto held thirty named roles that San Francisco Opera covered with fourteen singers, led by no less than American baritone Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, security chief at the WTC. Mr. Hampson obviously reveled in portraying this more colorful than interesting character who was, might we say, more headstrong than heroic.
SFO principal guest conductor Patrick Summers was at the helm of all these folks, plus a standard sized chorus and a modestly endowed Romantic era orchestra. There was remarkably little percussion limited to the service of orchestral color. Battle sounds were modest electronic reproductions of the real thing.
The key to understanding this remarkable evening is to take yourself back to that terrible day, as you could not help but do in anticipation of the performance. Thus it was already emotionally laden before the fact.
For most of us the destruction of the World Trade Center was a small event, which is to way it was the size of our television screen. What were certainly awesome roars emitted by the collapsing towers were no louder than the voices of those begging for news of loved ones, the visual images of the still standing towers were even smaller than these anonymous tortured faces.
Heart of a Soldier captured the anonymity of this calamity by recounting the life of but one of its 3000 victims, a life however that was fulfilled by its death in battle. This victim, Rick, was a soldier, his story was told in scenes in which he was among many soldiers on the many battlefields on which they fought. Justness of cause was never mentioned. It was simply life on a battlefield, the battlefield of life where finally you too will die. It was a metaphor for all its victims, at once huge and minuscule.
There was huge art involved in creating this opera. Donna di Novelli’s libretto was the structure, stating its themes and images, developing them and recapitulating all these themes on that fateful September 11, 2001. It might have seemed contrived except we soon perceived that these conceits were in fact structural, creating brief lyric musical spaces as well as the arc of the story. The lyric moments were however always too brief, never indulging in what were the inherently wrenching emotions we had braced ourselves to endure and maybe finally wished we had.
The score by Christopher Theofanidis was based on American musical vocabulary, our open fifths and fourths, our primitive dance forms and our chugging minimalism. Its musical sophistication was stratospheric — Mr. Theofanidis’ brilliant orchestration would have made Berlioz green with envy, his harmonic transports would have cowed Richard Strauss.
While the premise of Heart of a Soldier was challenging on so many levels, Mr. Theofanidis’ score simply was not. One longed for a fugue or at least some sense of music taking on a life of its own, music that transcended the word and the literal and pushed us to the edge of our sensibilities and our endurance, like 9/11 had. This splendidly beautiful music did not.
Rick Rescorla’s best friend Dan Hill was portrayed by tenor William Burden in a quite convincing and moving characterization of this simple American mercenary who converted to Islam. Rick’s second wife Susan was enacted by Melody Moore who achieved the simple vivacity of character asked by the libretto in vibrant voice. The opera’s lack of emotional indulgence was echoed by its absence of vocal indulgence, even Mr. Hampson was given but one small opportunity to place his operatic art before Rick’s swagger. Of the secondary roles only the medic Tom beautifully sung by Michael Sumuel and his girlfriend Juliet sung by Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra were offered somewhat extended opportunities for lyric expansion.
The final image was neither word nor music, it was simply the tableau of Dan Hill knelt in Islamic prayer and Susan Rescorla, arms uplifted sifting the dust of 9/11 through her fingers. It was the only emotionally overpowering moment of the performance.
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