New Opera Tells Story Of Sept. 11 Heroism

A continent away from where the towers fell, the horror of that September morning 10 years ago is being recreated on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.

The attack on the World Trade Center comes in the climactic scene of “Heart of a Soldier,” an earnest and at times compelling work that was given its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera on Saturday night.

Photo: AP Photo
Photo provided by the San Francisco Opera during a dress rehearsal of Heart of a Soldier in San Francisco.

Adapted from a nonfiction book of the same name by journalist James Stewart, “Heart” tells the story of Rick Rescorla, a native of Cornwall, England, who made a career as a soldier – first in Rhodesia, then fighting for the Americans in Vietnam.

Ultimately he became head of security for Morgan Stanley in New York, and on Sept. 11 led almost every one of the company’s 2,700 employees down 40 flights of stairs to safety in the burning South Tower. Then he went back to look for anyone left behind and was killed in the tower’s collapse.

Part of what drew director Francesca Zambello to the book as the subject for an opera is what she calls its double love story: Rescorla’s lifelong bond with American soldier-of-fortune Dan Hill, and his late-blooming romance with New Jersey divorcee Susan Greer.

The libretto, by Donna Di Novelli, relates these events in chronological sequence, except for a brief prologue that shows the Twin Towers on the day of the attack and introduces Susan. The five scenes of Act 1 take us from Rick’s boyhood in Cornwall in 1944 through war zones and military training camps to Dallas, where he marries his first wife in 1972.

Given the amount of ground this part of the story has to cover, it’s not surprising that the score, by American composer Christopher Theofanidis, often becomes a kind of background music – an evocative accompaniment to the pageant or travelogue unfolding on stage (some of it through projections of historical newsreels).

But for opera to succeed fully, its music should serve as the creative force through which we experience the drama of the story and the emotions of the characters. That’s what, on an initial hearing at least, seems missing in the evening’s first half.

Theofanidis does better in this regard in the second act, when a gathering sense of doom intertwines with Rick and Susan’s romance. There’s a lovely, lyrical duet that captures the hope and embarrassment of two people in their 50s falling deeply in love.

And there’s undeniable power in the scene depicting the attacks, as Rick guides a chorus of terrified employees to safety – singing a Cornish anthem – while Susan and Dan make their last, frantic contacts with him by cell phone, and those infamous announcements over Port Authority loudspeakers urge everyone to remain at their desks.

Di Novelli’s libretto makes clear, without hitting us over the head, that the discipline and brotherhood Rick instilled in his troops in Vietnam are the same values he brings to bear in helping the employees guide each other down those stairs. Musically, Theofanidis brings his score full circle: The anthem Rick sings is the same one that as a boy he taught to American GIs departing for Normandy (sung in that earlier scene by the appealing boy soprano Henry Phipps). And the young Rick’s lament that the soldiers are leaving is echoed by Susan as she has her last conversation with her husband.

The towers in Peter J. Davison’s imaginative set never crumble before our eyes; instead, they go dark, and a blizzard of paper floats down to the stage. The orchestra plays a few dissonant chords as a coda to what we have just witnessed, and the opera ends with Susan and Dan paying silent tribute to Rick amid the rubble.

The company has assembled a first-rate, mostly American cast for the project. As Rick, Thomas Hampson gives his considerable all, his mellow baritone only occasionally drowned out by the orchestral din. Tenor William Burden, as Dan, is engaging and sings with shining tone. Soprano Melody Moore fills out her phrases as Susan with warmth and aching lyricism.

In smaller roles, soprano Nadine Sierra sings affectingly as a woman missing her sweetheart in Vietnam; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel is moving as a doomed medic, Tom; and Syrian-born Mohannad Mchallah impressively intones the Muslim call to prayer during a scene in which Dan declares his intent to convert to Islam.

The orchestra plays the new score under the direction of Patrick Summers with energy and commitment and seems to have mastered its challenges.

The night before, the company opened its season with a rousing revival of Puccini’s “Turandot,” seen in David Hockney’s two-decade-old production, all brightly lit primary colors and skewed geometric shapes. Stage director Garnett Bruce did a terrific job keeping the action simple and avoiding a sense of clutter during the many crowd scenes.

Swedish soprano Irene Theorin was an unusually expressive Turandot, cold and cruel, yet giving glimpses from the start of the human being who would emerge from her icy shell. The fortissimo high notes of her entrance aria, “In questa reggia” held no terrors for her, and she shaped the arching phrases with elegance.

As Calaf, Italian tenor Marco Berti matched Theorin in volume, if not in subtlety. His voice is somewhat dry and lacking in color, and his account of “Nessun dorma,” that normally show-stopping aria, passed without a ripple of applause.

The promising young lyric soprano Leah Crocetto sang the role of the faithful slave girl Liu with appealing tone. Her first-act aria, “Signore, ascolta!” sounded a bit cautious, but she blossomed in her third-act scene. It did her no favors, however, to have her figure displayed in a notably ill-fitting costume.

The chorus, which plays a major role in this opera, sang magnificently, and music director Nicola Luisotti led the orchestra in a lively performance, a few willfully slow tempos aside.

With one festive masterpiece and one somber new work, the company’s 89th season is off to a strong start. “Turandot” plays in repertory until Nov. 25. There are six more performances of “Heart of a Soldier” through Sept. 30.