Atlanta Opera explores new territory

The Atlanta Opera delves into bold new territory with a strong production of contemporary composer David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs” at the Rialto Center for the Arts.

The hourlong performance, directed by Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, is part of the company’s new “Discoveries” series, which supplements a main-stage season of traditional repertoire at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre with experimental and contemporary works at smaller venues around the city.

Even before the small ensemble of musicians in the pit sounds the first note, arriving audience members hear the recorded sound of a distant bomb reworked as a slow, ominous drumbeat. Anyone expecting “Tosca” has been put on notice.

Little’s moving, visceral work is based on his recorded interviews with American combat veterans of five wars, and the text of the opera quotes directly from their often disturbing stories and troubled reflections. The three-part storyline follows the life of an Everyman soldier — here performed by baritone Matthew Worth — from childhood, then into war and finally into reflective old age.

One of the performance’s central pleasures is the wide variety of moods and textures that Worth brings to the role with his supple and extensively expressive voice. From youth to age, from panicked mortal danger to meditative stillness, he dives deeply into each song and its emotions. Even the simple act of closed-mouthed humming, which is heard at the beginning, at the end and during the course of the show, becomes suggestive of enormous, sublimated pain in Worth’s performance.

The work is an opera, but it also includes elements from other genres. Its varied score. performed by a small ensemble under conductor Christopher Rountree, integrates elements of a song cycle, musical theater and even a rock concert.

Little’s story has an interesting arc from childhood to adulthood, but early scenes that depict the facile conceptions of war woven throughout our culture, such as a child playing with a GI Joe doll or a teen playing violent video games, ultimately lack the depth and resonance of the later songs inspired by the actual stories of combat veterans.

It’s when we move into the more disturbing territory of songs like “Steel Rain,” which describes a soldier instinctively running from incoming ordnance, or “Hollywood Ending,” about the aftermath of a car bomb, that the performance is at its most powerful.

The production team of David Adam Moore and Vita Tzykun provides the visual designs. (Moore is intimately acquainted with the work, as he’s the baritone who performed in the opera’s world premiere and on the recording.) The projections tend to be most effective and impressive when they’re large and abstract. Bits of text that scramble and dissolve, slow water droplets, a close-up of names on the Vietnam memorial or hypnotically dancing flames help tell a more complicated and spacious story.

“Soldier Songs” is not an easy or gentle work. Its violent themes, unusual narrative and contemporary sounds could make for a puzzling, challenging evening for someone new to opera. But those who’ve longed for the Atlanta Opera to move in brave new directions will be gratified to see the company dive into the thick of things with this work.