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Opera review: 'Heart of a Soldier'

September 11, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Heart of a Soldier

San Francisco Opera has done its duty. Christopher Theofanidis’ “Heart of a Soldier,” which the company commissioned, celebrates the life of Rick Rescorla. If it hadn’t been for the diligence, foresight, leadership and valor of this former soldier, who was head of security at Morgan Stanley, the death toll at the World Trade Center on that fatal day, 10 years ago, might have been nearly double. He shepherded 2,700 office workers to safety and died going back into the south tower, hoping to help more.

The premiere Saturday night in the aptly named War Memorial Opera House was a patriotic occasion. The audience, once in its seats, was asked to stand and sing the national anthem, while a flag was projected on a video scrim in front of a set of the twin towers. Two hours later — and two hours before the calendar clicked over to Sept. 11 — the orchestra played what everyone could recognize as portentous music. The stage shook. The sky filled with falling papers. Office workers fell to the floor. The scrim showed smoke.

The audience was visibly shaken. At the curtain call a few moments later, many still had tears in their eyes. The great baritone Thomas Hampson, a larger-than-life Rick Rescorla, won our hearts. The standing ovation was the kind every composer and every opera company dreams of for a premiere. Lest no emotional button go unpushed, San Francisco Opera left us with this final image: extras in firefighter costumes, in full regalia, standing proudly in the towers as the cast took its concluding bows.

This was no place for critics. Under these circumstances, dare one call “Heart of a Soldier” — which was given a convincing and engaging production by Francesca Zambello and a committed performance conducted by Patrick Summers — a failed opera?

Thomas Hampson It had the external elements of conventional tragic opera -- action, heroism, exotic locales and love scenes. The villains who masterminded and carried out the 9/11 attacks remained unseen, but we know who they are. Hampson chewed the scenery and sang magnificently. The overall narrative was clear as a bell (even if many details and motivations were sketchy), and the opera moved with welcome efficiency.

But beyond obviously effective theatricality and memorializing, to say nothing of downright emotional manipulation, there was Theofanidis' obvious score and an obvious libretto by Donna Di Novelli, who produced an operatic précis of the book “Heart of a Soldier,” which James B. Stewart adapted from his New Yorker profile of Rescorla. Theofanidis has a flair for showy orchestral color, big effects and likably sinuous tunes he elevates into Hollywood style climaxes. He makes a splash, then another, then another.

The first act begins in Cornwall, England, where Rescorla was born. We encounter him as a youth (boy soprano Henry Phipps) teaching Cornish songs to U.S. troops on their way to Normandy. Then we see him as head of British mercenaries in Rhodesia, where he meets Dan Hill (tenor William Burden), an American paratrooper, and this becomes a buddy opera.

Rick applies for American citizenship, and he and Dan join up for Vietnam, where Rick saves Dan’s life. After a medic dies in his arms, Rick becomes disillusioned with war, but not before ritually smearing his arms in the medic’s blood to absorb his life force, just as Rick had done after killing a tiger in Rhodesia. The tiger’s tooth is his talisman, which he eventually gives to Dan.

The act ends with Rescorla’s wedding and entry into civilian life. He went on to study creative writing and get a law degree. Hill, having converted to Islam, spaces out during the wedding. In the opera's finest and one surreal scene, an Imam (Mohannad Mchallah) can be heard beautifully singing in the distance.

The second act is a love story and tragedy. Rescorla, now at Morgan Stanley and divorced, commutes to Manhattan from a New Jersey suburb where he meets Susan (soprano Melody Moore), who becomes his soul mate. Rescorla is frustrated with the lack of security precautions at the World Trade Center, and the tiny bit of controversy allowed in this opera is how Rescorla’s Cassandra-like warnings about attacks on the twin towers fall on deaf ears.

In her production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle here last June, Zambello displayed a refreshingly refined sense of irony when dealing with Wagnerian heroism. And there is a hint of that in her playful moments in the new opera. But mainly she handles the many moving parts of this production -- with a large cast of soldiers, their women back home, the wedding guests, office workers -- fluidly. The twin tower set by Peter J. Davison fulfills its function.

Theofanidis' score suggests Cornwall and Vietnam and Texas (where the composer is from). There are thumping march tunes. The orchestra swells when Rick’s chest swells or Susan’s emotions swell. John Williams is an influence. The vocal writing is effective, not remarkable.

"Heart of a Soldier” doesn't question, but it leaves one wondering. Was leading firemen back into the building when it was about to fall a classic act of heroic folly that only made the tragedy worse? Or did the building fall faster than it should have for reasons yet to be explained? Should writing an opera about courage be, itself, an act of courage?

RELATED:

A requiem for 9/11

Opera review: San Francisco Opera presents a new 'Ring' Cycle

Countdown to the 9/11 Memorial: Review roundup

-- Mark Swed in San Francisco

"Heart of a Soldier," War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 and 21; 2 p.m. Sept. 18 and 24; 8 p.m. Sept. 27 and 30. $21 to $389. (415) 864-3330 or sfopera.com. Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Photo: Top, "Heart of a Soldier" final scene; middle, Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla in Vietnam. Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

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