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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 14, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 20
Risky Amelia pays off for Seattle Opera
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Risky Amelia pays off for Seattle Opera

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Amelia
McCaw Hall
Through May 22


Amelia, a new opera by composer Daron Aric Hagen and librettist Gardner McFall, is so new that the composer was writing new music during the week of dress rehearsals. For this reason, the press was excluded from those rehearsals. Determined to familiarize myself with the music before seeing the show, I copped a ticket to Wednesday's dress from a donor. Now, having seen two performances and one dress rehearsal, let me tell you of my amazing journey with this opera.

At the rehearsal, I was almost bored, despite a multi-layered story and singers who were not holding back. The music seemed bland (people who dread "modern" music have nothing to fear here!) and the story didn't move me. But by Saturday's opening performance, my response was completely changed. The music became interesting and quite lyrical, and the story now seemed pretty gripping. By Sunday's matinee, I was crying three times in the second of the two acts! Call me dense, but it took me that long to get "inside" Hagen's musical language. What at first hearing seemed bland had become extremely moving and powerful.

The music was not difficult or unpleasant. The orchestral texture varied from light and transparent to loud outbursts and climaxes. Conductor Gerard Schwarz was masterful in not swamping the singers. Best of all, the vocal writing was, for the most part, well-suited to the voices. Clearly Hagen understands singers.

Usually, my reviews are primarily about the singing. But this is Seattle Opera's first commissioning of a new work, and that newness demands description first of all of the work itself. Suffice to say that all the singers were excellent, both in acting and singing. The exception was Nathan Gunn, who seemed to "phone in" his singing, though his attractive appearance and acting were winning. For instance, in the reading of a letter, the matinee-cast baritone, David McFerrin, far excelled Gunn in the beauty of his vocal line and thus the emotional impact of this moving scene. (In most of the other scenes, the young and very attractive McFerrin was largely inaudible, seeming so intent on his acting that he forgot to project his beautiful voice to the audience.) Standouts were William Burden, in all ways perfect for the part of an idealized father of the superb Kate Lindsey, who was sublimely beautiful and vocally and dramatically stunning as Amelia. Also impressive was the expressive and effortless soprano of debutant Ashley Emerson as the child Amelia.

The narrative takes place in different periods, starting in the mid-1960s during the Vietnam war, then jumping to the mid-1990s, and then back to the mid-1980s in Vietnam & all in the first three scenes that comprise Act One. The story is easy enough to follow, but it also takes place simultaneously on three levels: first, that of Amelia and her family; then that of an emblematic figure called "the Flier" (clearly a stand-in for Amelia Earhart, whose name could not be used without paying big bucks to her estate!), whose appearance both high above the stage and on ground level comments on the emotional appeal of flight and of following one's dreams; and lastly, the father-son relationship of Daedalus and Icarus (later an anonymous father and son, critically injured in a fall). If this sounds complicated, the sets, costumes, and text (with supratitles) made it fairly easy to understand. More important, the complexity adds to the emotional resonance of each scene. In the first scene, for instance, while we experience the intense love of the child Amelia for her father, we simultaneously see Amelia's mother receive word that her husband is missing in action. Amelia's adult fixation on the loss of her father (and her eventual freedom from that fixation) is a major theme of the story. In life, fear is a worthwhile price to pay for taking risks, whether the risk of flying or of having a baby ("Another thing to love and lose," as Amelia says).

Essential to the storytelling was the effective direction of Stephen Wadsworth. There was not a false move anywhere.

The sets are impressive. They include a beautifully realized Vietnamese village scene and a most impressive airplane, whose propellers slowly die as "the Flier" runs out to gas. Also, stunning is the stylized airplane wing, upon which the "ghosts" of Amelia as a child and her dead father appear behind a scene portraying the adult Amelia's crisis of fear for the imminent birth of her first child.

Once again, Seattle Opera has shown that it can summon the resources to do full justice to a work that deserves it. In this case, it meant going even so far as to cause its very existence! The risk of this "baby" was well worth the price! Performances continue through May 22. Opening night was nearly sold out. See www.seattleopera.org for tickets and information.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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