SAN FRANCISCO A sheet of paper descends slowly from the sky, like so many passed years, in the beginning of the 9/11 opera "Heart of a Soldier."
Such visual triggers form the most powerful moments of this taut but flawed 90-minute opera by Christopher Theofanidis, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and premiered Saturday evening at the War Memorial Opera House.
The two-act opera is a fascinating example of how the artistic looking glass has been brought to bear, operatically, on the 9/11 tale.
But it doesn't always work.
The success of this opera is in the intimacy of the tale. Indeed, the "Heart" tale is a humanistic one, and sketched out over the life of Rick Rescorla a Vietnam veteran credited with ushering 2,700 people out of the World Trade Center's south tower before returning to the building to meet his doom. In this, librettist Donna Di Novelli stays close to the James B. Stewart book of the same name, with a smart but often quizzical libretto.
The production, unevenly directed by Francesca Zambello but vividly conducted by Patrick Summers, mostly plumbs the soldiering life of Rescorla and war buddy Daniel Hill, with a powerful ending on 9/11.
The story makes for great opera, but here it is tempered by the Rescorla role being sung with a less-than-powerful baritone by Thomas Hampson. In the role of Hill, tenor William Burden is a contrast, singing with radiance and youthful exuberance.
The charms of this opera come quietly especially when Rescorla is with Hill or wife Susan Rescorla, whose character is given a wonderful, clear performance by soprano Melody Moore. Throughout, Theofanidis has written vivid music that skews more toward the colorful, emotional hand-carrying of Giacomo Puccini rather the dry, sleek brush strokes of John Adams.
The first act concentrates on the 10-year span of 1962-72. Much dramatic heavy lifting here lays out the deep soldier-brotherhood back story of Hill and Rescorla. Included are a dramatically vapid Act I scene in which the child Rescorla, sung by Henry Phipps, is entranced and abandoned by soldiers in 1944. This is followed by an almost embarrassingly conceived wrestling scene in a Rhodesian bar years later, when Rescorla meets Hill. Here Hampson is fitted in shorts and must brawl.
Two bad moves, dramatically.
However, some nicely crafted music follows in a Vietnam platoon-preparation scene in which the military alphabet becomes a dramatic and musical thread. Theofanidis' music hits its stride here with forward drive and tasty ostinatos.
In an ensuing tragic battle scene, there is excellent singing by the opera's chorus as well as strong turns by baritone Michael Sumuel.
Later, a wedding party scene is contrasted with the arrival of a strand of Muslim worshippers including Hill as a new convert. It's a key scene between Hill and Rescorla, but not properly seized. It's too busy. A bare stage would have sufficed, but director Zambello populates it. Despite that, tenor Burden shines in an aria where he sings of his conversion.
The second act starts tight and bright. Here Di Novelli and Theofanidis craft a delicious scene in which Rescorla encounters and courts his future wife. The music is finely shaped, with Hampson for the first time inhabiting the stage with an electric presence. The scene is an example of how opera can be great theater.
The opera makes its way to its sad and powerful conclusion, with the help of an elegant set by Peter J. Davison, which places actors on different floors of doomed World Trade Center towers. As both buildings are hit and Rescorla's fate is sealed, Moore's Susan Rescorla sings, in panic, from her bedroom. Her turn in the aria "Stay" is a spot of dark anguish.
It's a chilling moment in which a national tragedy becomes an all-too-personal one.
HEART OF A SOLDIER
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 27 and 30; 2 p.m. Sept. 18 and 24; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 and 21
Where: San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Information: (415)863-3340; www.sfopera.org