Heart of a Soldier, SF Opera

‘Heart of a Soldier’

Opera in two acts (world premiere)
Music by Christopher Theofanidis
Libretto by Donna Di Novelli (based on the book by James B. Stewart)
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Conducted by Patrick Summers
San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House
Sept. 10-30, 2011

Siegfried, Radames, Manrico—the opera world ever has rallied to the song of their clashing swords and blaring war horns. But what about a modern-day warrior hero, the kind who hacks his way through the jungles of Vietnam or crawls into the caves of Afghanistan and then comes home to hang up his weapons and put on a business suit? Long overdue, such a man now has his own opera and a pretty terrific show it is.

Rick Rescorla, the retired soldier who used his battle skills to lead 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees safely out of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, ten years ago, only to perish as he went back for one last sweep of the crumbling tower, is the subject of “Heart of a Soldier,” a new opera based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart as well as the life stories of Rescorla, his wife Susan and his best friend and wartime buddy Dan Hill. Having its world premiere at San Francisco Opera (which commissioned it) with Thomas Hampson as Rescorla, William Burden as his friend and soprano Melody Moore as Susan, the midlife love of his life, in a visually arresting production, it is more exciting than a mythological epic, more moving than watching a soprano in the last throes of consumption and, if not exactly a landmark composition, easy to listen to.

So why isn’t it a hit? Could it be that we need more distance from our operatic heroes, some fancy period costumes and a tale that is larger than life? Or is it because of lukewarm reviews in some of our more influential publications? All I know is that a half-empty house rose to its feet cheering at the conclusion of the Sept. 13 performance and at least one critic, whom I know personally, had tears in her eyes.

The tale unfolds with cinematic swiftness and clarity against a stunning skeletal background of the towers, over which are projected slides of faraway battlegrounds, smoke, sky, even a lion (whose tooth Rescorla wears as a good luck charm). Francesca Zambello directs with the same sure hand that made San Francisco’s recent “Ring” cycle so effective, and Peter Davison’s sets, Mark McCullough’s lighting and the aforementioned projections by S. Katy Tucker heighten the action. The difficult staging of the battle scenes and the fall of the Twin Towers is masterful. The chorus sang beautifully (sometimes when doing pushups at boot camp) and Patrick Summers and the orchestra delivered Christopher Theofanidis’ score well. Hampson always is wonderful, if a little stiff here. Burden, a fine tenor, inhabits the role of Dan Hill with more comfort. Moore is perfect as the wife. Excellent work also is done by Michael Sumuel as a medic in Vietnam and Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra as his sweetheart back home. Mohannad Mchallah sings a beautiful Muslim call to prayer.

The first act is entirely given to “back story.” A little Cornish boy worships the American soldiers camped near his home on their way to Normandy. He even changes his name from Cyril to the more American-sounding “Rick.” We then see him, all grown up, serving in Rhodesia, where he meets Hill, an American mercenary who convinces his new friend to attend Officer Candidate School in Georgia and become a real American. From there we go to Vietnam, where Rescorla disobeys orders and deploys his men to save Hill and his battalion, and then to Dallas, where Rescorla gets married for the first timewith Hill as best man, of course. Act II, actually better than Act I, takes us through Rick and Susan’s meeting and romance all the way to that fateful day in September, 2001. The opera is about violence, yes, but it is even more about friendship and love and the bond between comrades in the field—all of which inform Rescorla’s great act of heroism.

The only place it bogs down briefly is the wedding scene at the end of the first act when Rescorla and his Vietnam buddies voice their complaints about their peacetime reception and the women complain about life as military wives. The love scenes between Rick and Susan are funny and tender and true to life, and the one well-defined aria, sung by Hampson in Act II, stops the show. Actually, that’s just a stock phrase. Nothing can really stop this show—except perhaps a lack of audience. And that would be a shame.

San Francisco ,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”