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A Journey of the Heart

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/10/2011 -  & September 13, 18*, 21, 24, 30, 2011
Christopher Theofanidis: Heart of a Soldier
Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla), William Burden (Daniel J. Hill), Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla), Nadine Sierra (Juliet, Barbara), Henry Phipps (Cyril), Mohannad Mchallah (Imam), Michael Sumuel (Tom, Ted), Susannah Biller (Lolita, Bridesmaid), Sara Gartland (Pat, Ann), Maya Lahyani (Kathy, Bridesmaid), Ta'u Pupu'a (Omaha, Robert), Daniel Snyder (Dex, Dexter), Trevor Scheunemann (Joseph, Joe), Wayne Tiggs (Sam, Wesley), Koa the Golden Retriever (Buddy)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Ian Robertson (chorus director), Patrick Summers (conductor)
Francesca Zambello (director), Peter J. Davison (set designer), Jess Goldstein (costume designer), Mark McCullough (lighting designer), S. Katy Tucker (projection designer), Rick Sordelet (physical action director), Lawrence Pech (choreographer), Steve Condiotti (director of photography)

W. Burden & T. Hampson(© San Francisco Opera)

The world premiere of Heart of a Soldier was commissioned and presented by the San Francisco Opera in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Donna Di Novelli's libretto is based upon James B. Stewart's book of the same name.

If it may be too soon to fully assimilate through artistic expression the grievous wound inflicted upon this country, the effort to do so is inspired by shared love for one man who single-mindedly, doggedly insisted that the 2,700 employees under his care, as security director for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center, repeatedly endure evacuation drills after the 1993 terrorist attack. He was convinced that there would be another attempt on the Towers, and, of course, he was correct. Because of his enforced evacuation practice drills, he saved 2,694 of those employees. Six were lost, although Rick Rescorla, the last man out of the building that day, then re-entered the structure to search for them. He was never seen again.

It will take more than one viewing to decide upon the merits of the libretto and the emotional depths of the music. Although tragedy is ubiquitous in opera, few productions recount a true story, much less a hero whose feet were on ground zero at the tumultuous event which lives in the memory of virtually all of the audience. Was this production a cathartic journey for each patron as that dreadful morning was re-created, but through an artistic lens rather than that of CNN? If tragedy is infused with some meaning, does it become easier to weave into the fabric of one's life as time distances the event and one struggles to empathize with the affliction of others, yet by necessity the individual must resume the circadian monotony of one's existence?

The much lauded baritone Thomas Hampson infused all of his artistic ability to breathe passion into a protagonist whose reputation, even before the attacks, was larger than life. Hampson is an inspired casting choice for Rescorla, much as George C. Scott was for General Patton, being known for his considered approach to characterization, his versatility and creative range. Tenor William Burden provided lyrical support as Rescorla's beloved long-time friend, Dan Hill. Burden may not have reflected the inspired acting that Hampson did, but Rick Rescorla is the more complicated and charismatic persona, reflecting nuanced valor which permits more performance latitude.
The character of Susan Rescorla, Rick's widow, is tenderly embraced by soprano Melody Moore, whose voice projects warm tonal inflections combined with a touching innocence.

Christopher Theofanidis’s score is contemporary but lyrical, foreshadowing Rescorla's appointment with death and haunting the listener with the inevitability of mortality. It is a rich mosaic of Celtic, rock, 20th century American art music and chant, laid upon an original musical vision of the elements of this story which are universal to great opera. The poignant voice of the bagpipe after Rescorla disappears announces the end of this incarnation of a beloved hero.

Stage sets must have been a challenge given the libretto's snapshot of different times and places. Simply put, the staging worked. The specter of the Twin Towers was superimposed upon all scenes, representing the fate awaiting Rescorla and the evolution of his spirit through his life's journey so that only Rick Rescorla could have literally sung almost 2,700 people out of the South Tower away from certain death. The lighting was magnificent – this is a production which calls upon all of the lighting director's craft and imagination.

The soldiers' fight scenes were the weakest part of this performance, and always seem to be problematic. It might be better to simply strike the choreography from the production rather than attempt to force a convincing performance. As the performance was delivered on Sunday, it added nothing but detracted from the overall merit of the actors.

Koa, a Golden Retriever making his opera debut as Buddy, Susan's dog, again reminded the audience of the reality of this story, and alluded to the 9/11 attacks having brought forth the largest deployment of search-and-rescue dogs ever summoned.

Claudia K. Nichols



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