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An American Soldier

American Opera Initiative | Washington National Opera

The drawn-from-the-headlines genre of operas received a fascinating, if not entirely satisfying, addition with the premiere of An American Soldier by profile-rising composer Huang Ruo and Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang.  It's the second hour-long work created as part of Washington National Opera's two-year-old American Opera Initiative. The piece delivers a broadside against the injustices in the dreadful case of nineteen-year-old U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Chen, whose apparent suicide in 2011 at his base in Afghanistan followed brutal hazing by fellow soldiers.

The score is fueled by intensely communicative dissonance and given extra edge by Huang Ruo's flair for exploiting tonal extremes in the instruments, especially woodwinds and percussion, of the thirteen-member orchestra. Wordless, eerie wails from an offstage chorus add another striking layer to the soundscape. The vocal writing often has a generic, declamatory quality that wears thin, but, at its best, packs considerable emotional weight.  Hwang's libretto (a small portion of it sung in Chinese) launches the action at the court martial of soldiers charged with negligent homicide; a series of flashbacks fills in the back story of Chen's unexpected decision to enlist and his disillusioning experiences in the service.  The text, which includes racial epithets and other vulgarities, does not always lend itself to musical treatment. And some lines, notably a news brief that begins "In January 2013, President Obama signed an anti-hazing bill," would be better spoken than sung. Ultimately, the opera is a little too high-minded and heavy-handed, but it moves quickly and, for the most part, absorbingly.

The company gave the new work a stylish production designed by Paul Taylor that allowed for smooth transitions between settings and time periods. On June 14 in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, the cast, directed with a sensitive touch by David Paul, offered uniform intensity. Tenor Andrew Stenson sang the role of Chen with a clear, bright tone, handling the often high tessitura bravely. Guang Yang, as Mother Chen, used her vibrant mezzo to keen effect and conveyed the character's grief with great poignancy. The baritone Trevor Scheunemann offered solid vocalism to match a chilling portrayal of Chen's chief tormentor, Sgt. Marcum. Soloman Howard's sizable bass filled out the role of the Judge (and one of the soldiers). The others in the cast (tenor Jonathan Blalock, baritone Andrew McLaughlin, bass Michael Ventura), handled their multiple assignments with vocal and dramatic vividness. Conductor Steven Jarvi maintained smooth rapport between stage and pit and drew potent work from the orchestra. spacer 


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