Seattle Opera's "Amelia" is a production of riveting dramatic and musical strength, proudly American yet rising above jingoism, profoundly personal yet universal in context. And Seattle Opera has done wonders in ensuring the best possible introduction for a complex and difficult work, writes Bernard Jacobson.

OPERA REVIEW |

The waiting is over, Daron Aric Hagen’s “Amelia” has achieved liftoff, and it’s time for a critic to offer some impressions of the world premiere.

Firstly, that this is an opera of riveting dramatic and musical strength, proudly American yet rising above jingoism, profoundly personal yet universal in context. Secondly, that Seattle Opera has done wonders in ensuring the best possible introduction for a complex and difficult work.

The complexity of interwoven plot elements makes “Amelia” difficult for the performers, but not for the audience. Besides cleverly enabling the sung text to emerge with rare clarity, Hagen has fashioned a score of impassioned and compelling beauty. His melodic lines are eminently singable, and his sumptuous orchestral writing constantly enchants the ear.

Gardner McFall’s fluent libretto, skillfully articulated in narrative design by Stephen Wadsworth, has three main topics: the conflicting claims of family and country; the ethics of bombing Vietnam; and the love of flying. Confronting her aircraft-designer husband, Paul, in his office, Amelia, still struggling years later to come to terms with the loss of her pilot father in Vietnam, makes strong statements about the first two of these topics, but the story leaves the ambiguity of the first issue unresolved (as does life). Whether the second is left too little resolved is a question worth asking, if similarly not attempting to answer.

In the end, then, what is the center of the opera? The trappings of plot and production — Daedalus and Icarus, Amelia Earhart and the ghostly materialization of her Lockheed Electra looming over the final scene — suggest that the central topic is flying, or the love of it, along with the importance of never giving up. But what for me was the strongest emotional impression was the sense, as the Americans and the Vietnamese sought mutual understanding in the Vietnam scene, that there is no essential difference between peoples. Perhaps the central topic is, quite simply, love. It was a deeply moving moment, and its power was exerted through musical as much as theatrical means.

Some unnecessarily portentous upstage promenading of characters aside, Wadsworth’s production is flawless, as are Thomas Lynch’s brilliantly inventive sets, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Duane Schuler’s lighting. The orchestra plays gorgeously under Gerard Schwarz’s assured leadership (wonderful horn solos from Susan Carroll). In the central roles of Amelia, her father and Paul, Kate Lindsey, William Burden and Nathan Gunn are stunningly good. Doubling as Paul, David McFerrin made a highly impressive company debut in Sunday’s second performance. Ashley Emerson is charming as the young Amelia, Jennifer Zetlan is compelling as Amelia Earhart, and in the role of Amelia’s aunt, Helen Jane Eaglen’s voice is close to its fabled best. Among the Vietnamese characters, David Won’s rich baritone is especially notable, and no one else in the large cast is less than excellent.

Whether this is the masterly new American opera we have long been waiting for is a question best left to the future. For now, it stands as an achievement at once profound and hugely enjoyable.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net


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