Here's a small yet telling detail in the continuing drama of America's response to the Sept. 11 attacks: the premiere of an opera that deals with those events yet lacks a tangible antagonist. As evidence of healing, or at least as evidence of a move away from the us-against-them mindset that characterized the response 10 years ago, this may be all to the good. But as SF Opera's newly unveiled Heart of a Soldier reveals, such an approach does not always make for compelling art.
Based on a book by reporter James B. Stewart and commissioned by SF Opera to commemorate the attacks, Heart of a Soldier focuses on the life of Rick Rescorla, a Brit-turned-Yank who left a military career to become head of security for a company with offices in the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, 2001, he safely evacuated the company's 2,700 employees from the south tower and returned for a final sweep. The tower collapsed shortly thereafter.
Director Francesca Zambello's program notes explain that the creators aspire to something more than a "9/11 opera." Rather, they aim to illustrate the ideals of heroism, love, and duty through Rescorla's story, focusing on his relationships with his wife, Susan, and his best friend, Daniel J. Hill. Zambello's antagonist is history. Positing an abstract entity in that role makes it all the more crucial that the flesh-and-blood protagonists be richly imagined and believable. Unfortunately, Heart of a Soldier seems built to prevent that from happening.
In real life, Rescorla (sung by baritone Thomas Hampson) and Hill (tenor William Burden) enjoyed an extraordinary friendship. Susan Rescorla (soprano Melody Moore) and Rick fell in love when neither was expecting romance. But in the opera, these relationships are announced rather than developed. Hill and Rescorla meet in a military bar in Rhodesia in the '60s; after a perfunctory wrestling match, they agree that it seems they've known each other for years. Though Rescorla's and Susan's courting was whirlwind in real life, the opera's rapid progression from meet-cute to profound love feels more like a structural convenience. It's hard to invest in Rescorla's story when the man at its center seems interchangeable with warrior-hero archetypes.
At times, Donna Di Novelli's libretto is a formidable antagonist in its own right. Witness Rescorla in Vietnam, trying to rally the young soldiers under his command. He informs them that there are two ways to not feel afraid: One way is to be stupid; the other, "To sing!" Though the real Rescorla did use his vocal talents in times of distress — he sang through a bullhorn while leading evacuees down the World Trade Center stairwells — surely this could have been conveyed in a manner less reminiscent of Julie Andrews and "My Favorite Things." The libretto devolves into inanity during an otherwise-sweet courtship scene. To win Rescorla's affections, Susan desires to be younger, "more lean, more beauty queen, more tambourine," whatever that last might mean.
Any performer would have trouble shining in such a muddled setting, and not surprisingly, the main singers suffered, musically and dramatically. Of the three leads, Hampson gave the best vocal performance; Burden's tenor was sometimes too weak, and Moore's upper register was unpleasantly shrill. Conductor Patrick Summers didn't rein in the orchestra's volume during the more brass-heavy portions of Christopher Theofanidis' score.
Peter J. Davison's twin-tower set afforded some visual interest, though the final scene felt cluttered rather than cataclysmic. While nothing on a stage could capture the tragedy of skyscrapers collapsing, the representation of the catastrophic moments seemed almost apologetic — the lights flickered, the performers within the structures dropped to the floor, papers drifted to the stage. The decision to simultaneously show Susan's and Hill's activities on that morning sorely tested the stage's limits — her bedroom and his lawnmower both appeared on a Manhattan sidewalk.
Heart of a Soldier purports to tell one man's story, but that story is programmatically robbed of immediacy. Its larger concerns are likewise undramatic. That antagonistic force of history is often conflated with notions of fate or destiny instead of being presented as the dynamic result of human actions. Given the opera's historical content and context, it's not difficult to imagine why that approach rings hollow.