Theofanidis: Heart of a Soldier

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 18 September 2011 3 stars

SFO Heart of a Soldier

The artistic elaboration of the September 11 attacks is a complex process that involves issues of collective memory, ideological stances, and emotional engagement, from both the artists and the audience. To mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, Christopher Theophanidis' Heart of a Soldier, a commission by the San Francisco Opera, with a libretto by Donna Di Novelli and directed by Francesca Zambello, has become another piece in the necessary puzzle of understanding and commemorating.

Heart of a Soldier presents one of the many important personal histories that shaped the memory of 9/11. The story, based on the homonymous 2002 non-fiction book by James B. Stewart, narrates the life of Cornwall-born Rick Rescorla, a military man who in numerous dangerous situations was able to make selfless and courageous decisions, often in the pursuit of saving people's lives. After retiring as a soldier, he became the vice president of security for Morgan Stanley. On the day of the attacks, he succeeded in evacuating more than 2,700 people from the World Trade Center South Tower, thanks to his rigorous training of the employees and to his ability to lead them through the devastation of the crumbling tower. He died as he went back into the collapsing building in order to be sure not to have left anyone behind. Susan Rescorla, Rick's beloved second wife and Daniel Hill, his life-long friend, participated in the creative process of Stewart's book, and were also present for the world premiere on September 10 at the War Memorial Opera House.

SFO Heart of a SoldierWhilst being less than two-hours long, the opera spreads through different continents in an arc of almost sixty years – from Rescorla's Cornish childhood, to his job in Rodhesia as a mercenary for the British, and to his Vietnam experience as a US soldier. Peter J. Davison's set designs are functional to the narration, if slightly too literal. The curtains rise on the following tableau: businessmen and businesswomen stand immobile, occupying the space in front and within the Twin Towers, which are symbolized by metallic skeletons of buildings. These silent characters, whose crucial presence gives a more tragic dimension to the story, slowly being to move, until the frantic pace of the World Trade Center is replicated on stage.

The frame of the Twin Towers remains in the background during the whole performance – at times more or less visible behind a scrim – but always looming behind the setting. This choice enhances a narrative device that seems to be prominent: the articulation of multiple temporalities all at once. This is clear from the beginning: in act I, a young Rick Rescorla (Henry Phipps), still bearing his childhood name Cyril, is joined by Thomas Hampson's adult Rescorla, as they sing together of their desire to lead a brave and selfless life.

The military experience of Rescorla and his friends occupies almost the whole first act. Their participation in the Vietnam war – specifically, during the 1965 Battle of X-Ray – is prominent in the economy of the opera. In fact, the long Vietnam scene could have been an instance in which an opera contributes to one of the most revisited themes of the Western imagination, exploiting its unique multimedia components. In this case, the occasion was lost: the representation (both music and staging) does not offer new angles, revolving instead around a familiar cinematic imagery. This is true especially of the musical rendition: the battle scenes rely heavily on sound and light effects (gunshots and stroboscopic lights), that displace the action to a generic "off stage." Music's commentary is virtually absent or is difficult to record amongst the gunshot noise.

Projections, designed by S. Katy Tucker, were touching in most of the occasions. For instance, the planes crashing on the towers become shadows over the two skyscrapers. The crumbling down is represented by falling pieces of white paper as the lights inside the buildings go suddenly off; subtle lighting by Mark McCullough contributed to the non-romanticized connotations of this historically and emotionally charged scene.

Vocal performances were mostly excellent. Thomas Hampson delivered his lines with both great warmth and vigor, with only minor uncertainties in the lower register. I found his acting somewhat stiff, but perhaps that was due to the militaristic characterization of his role. William Burden was outstanding too, creating the role of Dan Hill and conferring on him a thoughtful, almost unintelligible dimension, beyond the character's explicit macho attributes. As some critics have noted, these two characters (especially considering the casting of two capable singers) could have given cause for a memorable male duet, adding to the same lineage of Verdi's Posa and Don Carlo. Instead, the life-long relationship of the two never overcomes the militaristic and masculine tone set by act I.

SFO Heart of a SoldierMelody Moore was a superb Susan, thanks to her playful acting and rich tone (despite the fact that her lines – as well as those by the few other women characters – were among the least memorable of the libretto). Among the secondary roles, Michael Sumuel's Tom is to be acknowledged for a moving and intense portrayal of the medic who dies in the Vietnam battle.

Mohannad Mchallah's muslim chants gave life to, perhaps, the most interesting musical moment of this opera. His character, an imam, appears in the extended passage which portrays Dan's conversion to Islam. Dan's thoughts unfold in his singing as he remembers the time spent fighting in Beirut and the voice of the imam calling the Muslims to prayer. An interesting fusion of Eastern and Western tonalities, together with the delicate voice of Mchallah, opens the opera's confined texture to unexpected and insightful dimensions. For me, this scene, aptly positioned at the end of act I, represents one of the few real moments of reflexivity in Theofanidis' music.

In fact, I believe that where this opera could have been more incisive is precisely in the score. The music is functional but unsurprising: the composer made use of a tonal scaffolding imbued by 20th-century American influences – Copland and Bernstein are the first names that come to mind –, marching rhythms, and long vocal lines in unison with the orchestra, and that Patrick Summers conducted with severity and precision.

Many reviewers (The Financial Times and The New York Times, among others) shared the view that this opera is, in one word, cold: it does not meet the sentimental expectations attached to any work thematizing the 9/11 attacks, if this is at all possible. More precisely, as Heidi Waleson writes in The Wall Street Journal, one of the main problems with the way this opera tells this story of heroism and tragedy is that there is no real conflict. Music, libretto, and staging all converge to a conventional narrative of self-sacrifice and lucid courage, failing to propose any urgent commentary.

SFO Heart of a SoldierWhat I personally found most problematic was an unclear ideological stance taken up by the opera, in particular by its (clumsy) libretto, and complicated by the lack of critical engagement in the staging as well as in the score. The libretto wants us to focus on the fact that Rescorla is conditioning people's hearts ("Train that bastard heart of yours" is the refrain of a long military training scene in act I), and that what truly counts is for everyone to take care of one's own neighbor, no matter what. Yet, due to scene selection (compared to the book) and to a bland musical foundation, the experience of Rescorla and his innate courage translate too easily into a monolithic and repetitive praise of military life. Sure, we have heard the characters lamenting the unfulfilled hope that there could ever be a "just war" in which they were all hoping to fight; and Dan's conversion to Islam represents an opening to broader perspectives, as I mentioned. Yet these critical moments are not adequately explored, either in the music, in the libretto, or in the staging, and, finally these elements fail to offer a thematic counterpoint to the somewhat conservative ideology put on stage.

By Marina Romani

Photos credits: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

line

RheingoldRelated articles:

Turandot at the SFO
Elizabeth Bishop and Brandon Jovanovich Interview
Die Walküre at the SFO
Nicola Luisotti Interview