Review: An Opera About Drones Brings a Pilot’s War Home

Eric, for one thing, remains a cipher. His arias feel more like the result of post-workshop notes — “flesh out Jess’s husband” — than emotional imperative or importance to the plot. While the tenor Joseph Dennis is affable in the role, his chemistry with D’Angelo is nil. Besides the messianic Trainer, the stylized characters of the drone operation — the Commander; Jess’s teenage partner, the Sensor; and the “kill chain,” amplified over loudspeakers from offstage — are insufficiently vivid.

And while Jess’s ambivalence and troubles are clearly depicted, the storytelling, especially in the second act, is too busy to build the necessary claustrophobia, despite D’Angelo’s talent and earnest commitment. “Grounded” should come as a sobering shock, with the laser-guided horror of a Tomahawk, but for all the touches of churning darkness in the music, it’s oddly gentle.

In Mayer’s swiftly shifting if not quite elegant staging, much of Mimi Lien’s set is dominated by LED screens. The projections have been designed by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, who did similar work on the triptych “Proximity,” which premiered earlier this year at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

On the screens, in impressive high definition, we see blue skies rushing past, nighttime mountains, a sonogram, the grayish desert landscape observed from above by the Reaper drone’s pitiless eye. And we see the Reaper stretched across the stage, as rivetingly chilly as an empire vessel in “Star Wars.” On our first encounter with it, there’s even a shiver of sinister John Williams in Tesori’s score.

Yet it is a little pat to describe “Grounded” — as Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, did in an interview in May with The New York Times — as an “antiwar opera.” It is not exactly that, even if it culminates (spoiler alert) in Jess intentionally crashing the $17 million Reaper because she hallucinates that her target’s daughter is her own.

The opera implies that old-fashioned fighter piloting is nobler, and better for soldiers’ mental health, than the video-game-style drone deployment that has expanded the battlefield to encompass, potentially, all of us. Darkly, given the state of global affairs lately, the piece seems to say that war is OK; there are just better and worse — more and less authentic — ways of waging it.


Through Nov. 13 at the Kennedy Center;

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