Heart of a Soldier – The World Premier of a Gripping BiOpera

Heart of a Soldier is the third BiOpera that I have reviewed recently (Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic are the others) and it is basically different from almost all other operas. The story is a biography of a current person, and it is by far the driving force of the opera; music, acting, scenery, lighting, etc. are important only in-so-far-as they enhance the story telling.

Henry Phipps (Cyril) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)

And enhance it they certainly do. All elements fuse together to tell a gripping story that demands your unrelenting attention from opening chord to final curtain.

Trevor Scheunemann (Joe), Ta’u Pupu’a (Robert), Henry Phipps (Cyril) and Tom (Michael Sumuel)

The chief protagonist is Rick Rescorla (Thomas Hampson), one of the heroes of 9/11/01, and the story is told in a series of episodes, starting in June 1944 in Cornwall, England on the eve of D-Day. Eight-year old Cyril Richard Rescorla (Henry Phipps) is entranced by the American Soldiers assembling in Cornwall; he is heart-broken that they are about to leave and resolves that when he grows up he will be a soldier.

Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla) and William Burden (Dan Hill) with soldiers

Second episode is 18 years later in a bar in Northern Rhodesia. Rick, as he is now called is a British mercenary who has taken time out from killing Africans to kill a rogue lion that was decimating a village. He has adopted the native custom of honoring a slain warrior, friend or foe, by rubbing the lion’s blood on his arms and thus acquiring the lion’s bravery. He encounters an American paratrooper mercenary, Dan Hill (William Burden) and the two men hit it off immediately. After an enthusiastic but inconclusive wrestling match they become instant bosom buddies in the agreement that War is the only possible vocation for a Real Man.

Dan says, “Hey man, we gotta fight together. Let’s quit this backwater hell hole, go to Officer’s Canidate School in Georgia, and go fight in Vietnam.” Rick agrees since that is a “just war” and off they go.

William Burden (Dan Hill) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla) with soldiers

At OCS in Fort Benning, Rick and Dan further expand on their philosophy of loving war. Dramatic emphasis is provided by the chorus of soldiers climbing the ropes and doing chin pull ups on the bar while at the same timing singing a rousing chorus.

Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla) with soldiers

On to Vietnam. Rick leads his platoon through the jungle. He encourages the men to sing to keep up their courage. A soldier objects: “Won’t this tell the VC where we are?” To which Rick replies: “They know where we are. This will tell them that we are not afraid and perhaps that they should be afraid.”

Michael Sumuel (Tom) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)

The platoon is subject to machine-gun fire. Tremendous lighting effects and sound effects. A soldier is wounded. Tom (Michael Sumuel) crawls out to tend to him and is killed. Rick mourns his death and follows the African custom by smearing some of Tom’s blood on his arms.

Rick gets word that Dan is under attack by the VC and the Army is unable to send aid. He picks up the field telephone and says, “I’m going to his aid.” We hear the receiver squawk, “Permission denied.” “I can’t hear you sir. We’re going to his aid.” “Permission Denied” “The set seems to be broken, sir. I’m going in,” and Rick flings the telephone to the ground to a final squawk before it shatters: “PERMISSION DEN . . . .”

William Burden (Dan Hill) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)

Rick saves Dan who tries to claim Rick is a hero. Rick will have none of it. “The heroes are all dead. I am your friend. That means that if you are in trouble nothing can stop me from coming to you. If I can save you, that’s good. If I can’t save you, we will die together and that is also good.”

The two men get into a further argument when Rick confides how much he grieves for Tom. Dan wonders that he knows the names of his men. “Of course,” says Rick. “They are my men. I can do no less. When one of them dies, a part of me dies.” “I don’t know the names of any of my men,” says Dan. “I know that I will have to make decisions and that some of them will die. It’s bad enough to have a nameless corpse; I couldn’t stand the load if he had a name.” Rick replies, “Someone has to take that load. I must take it. They are my men.”

The tension during this scene is almost unbearable. Two men, each a consummate soldier. So different, yet bound in a profound friendship.

Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla) and Kristen Jones (a bride) with soldiers and guests

Seven years have passed. The two men have finished their tours in Vietnam, and Rick has quit the army; he can no longer carry the load. Instead, he is getting married, but we can sense from the beginning that it will not be a good marriage. No sooner have the married couple emerged from under the aisle of raised swords of Rick’s fellow-officers than he spots a war buddy in the crowd; he unceremoniously drops his bride and heads off to strictly male company leaving her to sit lonely at a table and drink glass after glass of champagne. She’s not even listed in the program!

William Burden (Dan Hill) and Mohannad Mchallah (Imam)

Rick and Dan bid each other adieu, and Rick gives Dan his lion’s tooth talisman as he heads back to the army and Afghanistan. In a flash-forward we see that Dan has converted to Islam, hoping to find a sense of order.

Background: Schematic of part of World Trade Center in Manhattan with the San Francisco Opera Chorus; Foreground: Morristown, NJ (L) William Burden (Dan Hill) mowing his suburban lawn (R) Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla) making her suburban bed

Act II. A quarter-century has passed. Both men are entering their sixties. Rick has found an ideal job as head of security for a large brokerage firm with offices in the World Trade Center (WTC) – his marriage is long gone.

Koa the dog (Buddy) and Melody Moore (Susan Greer)

We meet Susan Greer (Melody Moore), mid-fifties, twice divorced. She sees Rick, jogging barefoot and is intrigued; says, “Let me be the kind of woman I never was – I want to meet this man.”

Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)

She does, and they fall passionately into a mature love. Alas, they had all too short a time to enjoy it.

The tension, which had diffused a bit at the end of Act I, builds inexorably in Act II, driven in part by our fore-knowledge of what will happen on 9/11/01. Words fail me – I won’t even try to describe the horrifying, glorious climax as Rick saves all but a handful of the 2,700 employees: “my people” – and perishes going back in the building after that handful.

Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)

The Creative Team is kind to us, the audience. They do not force us back to reality directly from the shock of that dramatic ending on 9/11, but give us a short epilogue in which Dan and Susan visit Ground Zero and pay a final tribute to Rick. Dan says, “Even though Rick had saved so many, he could not have lived with himself if he had walked away while even one of his people’ were still in danger.” And Susan struggles to understand that Rick’s decision to go back rather than heed her plea, “You’ve done so much; come home to me now” did not constitute a rejection of her – it was an essential part of Rick himself; the Rick she loved so dearly.

A thoroughly satisfying opera.

The Opera Nut

September 21- (7:30 p.m.)
September 24- (2:00 p.m.)
September 27- (8:00 p.m.)
September 30- (8:00 p.m.)

World Premiere
Libretto by Donna Di Novelli
Based on the book by James B. Stewart and the life stories of Susan Rescorla, Rick Rescorla, and Daniel J. Hill
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including one intermission
Commissioned by San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-4008

All photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera






This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on September 21, 2011

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