‘An American Soldier’: WNO’s harsh world premiere opera

‘An American Soldier’: WNO’s harsh world premiere opera

Subject matter treatment, libretto, grating score make "An American Soldier" one difficult, world premiere short opera. And why the rabid anti-Americanism?

Guang Yang as Mother Chen in WNO's "An American Soldier." (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2014 — The Washington National Opera closed out its 2013-2014 season last weekend with two world premiere performances of Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo’s one-act opera
“An American Soldier” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

A bit like Nicholas Maw’s controversial full-length opera “Sophie’s Choice,” which WNO quite bravely performed here in 2006, “An American Soldier” takes a controversial story—in this case the true-life persecution and death of Chinese-American soldier Danny Chen whose likely 2011 suicide in Afghanistan was almost certainly the result of merciless hazing by his superior officer and members of his platoon.

By means of flashbacks, Mr. Ruo’s opera travels back and forth between the events leading up to Chen’s death and the court marshal of his superior officer, a fictionalized distillation of what actually were several related trials conducted at Ft. Bragg in 2012.

The pair of performances highlighted WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello’s continuing effort to both initiate and support new efforts in American opera at the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Ruo’s opera is a raw, contemporary, and brutal indictment of America’s Armed Forces, or at least their tradition of hazing which at times can indeed be taken to extremes—likely the case in this incident. But, like Mr. Maw’s opera, based on William Styron’s unsparing Holocaust-era novel, this opera’s slashing, atonal score and unrelieved brutality makes for more effective anti-military politics than it does great art.

The opera’s libretto, much of it taken verbatim from local newspaper accounts (in the Fayetteville [North Carolina] Journal) of the trials, according to librettist David Henry Hwang in a follow-up Q&A after Sunday’s performance, is painfully literal and flat, lacking largely in inspiration and vision–much the same problem with the late Nicholas Maw’s opera which literally snipped most of its words directly from the Styron novel.

In addition, like Maw’s opera, the bulk of “American Soldier’s” music is harsh and grating, a match for the subject matter to be sure, but resulting in a musically depressing hour-long screed rather than great art and a powerful teaching moment. In a political sense, it also amounts to yet another attack on our generally admirable military, something that remains persistently fashionable in artistic circles in this century.

There are some inventive turns in the score, particularly the clever simulations early on of Chinese music and modes. But this is a story that could have benefited from a bit more musical and lyrical humanity to drive its message home rather than the nonstop and savage gloom the audience was required to endure.

That said, Sunday’s notably multi-ethnic audience seemed solidly behind the opera at its conclusion, giving the singers, musicians, and the composer lyricist team a substantial ovation for such a new and controversial work, so perhaps ours is a minority opinion. Only time will tell.

From a performance standpoint, this was a thrifty production, crisply directed by David Paul who deftly utilized Paul Taylor’s modernist sets to keep the wide-ranging scenarios moving along.

Singing of this difficult score was excellent, marking another fine presentation by current and past members of the Domingo-CA fritz Young Artist Program and other mostly young artists.

Tenor Andrew Stenson turned in a first-rate and finely acted performance as Danny Chen, and strapping baritone Trevor Scheunemann created a genuinely terrifying Sgt. Aaron Marcum.

Bass Soloman Howard, a favorite of ours, turned in a suitably stern and authoritative performance as the trial judge while also appearing as a key witness in the trial.

In multiple roles, Andrew McLaughlin, Michael Ventura and Jonathan Blalock created carefully delineated and individualistic soldiers.

Guest mezzo-soprano Guang Yang was perhaps the most notable singer and personality onstage in the large role of Danny’s controversial but loyal mother. It’s a big, powerful role, and Ms. Yang provided a definitive performance.

A chamber-sized Washington National Orchestra handled this difficult score accurately and well under the baton of Steven Jarvi.

Rating: * (1 out of 4 stars)

(This review is a revision of an earlier version.)

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