'Amelia' is a triumph

Innovative score, strong ensemble make for great opera

Seattle Opera's first-ever commissioned opera took flight last Saturday night to a deservedly enthusiastic ovation. "Amelia" is a unique and beautiful opera that speaks from the heart.
Composed by Daron Aric Hagen with libretto by poet Gardner McFall and story by Stephen Wadsworth, "Amelia" is about a woman about to give birth. As she struggles with the emotional fallout from her pilot father's disappearance during the Vietnam War, she learns to overcome her grief and fear so she can fully embrace living.
While the libretto has a poetic loveliness that avoids the ungainliness of many a modern opera, its symbolism may be overly abundant for some tastes. My companion on opening night last Saturday said he felt he was being beaten over the head with metaphors and that some should have been omitted, particularly the Flier. I, on the other hand, happened to enjoy the opera's layered metaphors and saw the Flier as essential in Amelia's transformation.
Having two different time periods, or dreams and reality, sometimes occur onstage simultaneously worked admirably. The action switches among different eras-from the mid-1990s to mythological Greece-through the characters' dreams and flashbacks.
Hagen is no neophyte, having composed five operas and more than 200 published musical works. His orchestration, which always heightens the story, is rich and evocative, although he can pull punches when necessary. The music aptly turns far more austere and percussive when a Vietnamese couple describes to Amelia and her mother, Amanda, North Vietnamese soldiers capturing and shooting her father, Dodge, and killing a young village girl to scare Dodge into talking. And the a cappella singing in the opera's finale is a stunning treat of ensemble work.
Through much of the opera the atmosphere is of loss and foreboding, masterfully enhanced by conductor Gerard Schwarz. At times the orchestration overwhelmed an aria, but it wasn't clear whether this was an issue of score or conducting.
The musical interludes between scenes act both as cover for set changes and to foreshadow upcoming action. My favorite was the Act One interlude with its cleverly subtle suggestion of Vietnamese music to reflect the change from a United States setting to Vietnam. Unfortunately, scene changes on opening night were occasionally noisy enough to distract from the music.
Director Stephen Wadsworth and his cast counterbalance the dark leanings of libretto and score with humorous human touches like the easy banter between Amelia and her husband, Paul. Amelia's adamant command to the doctors that she go through natural childbirth instead of the recommended C-section-a moment instantly recognizable by the audience from their own experience-was acknowledged with knowing laughter.
"Amelia" features a large and stellar ensemble cast. On opening night, Ashley Emerson was astonishingly convincing as the 10-year-old Amelia, and Kate Lindsey warmly expressive as the grown-up title figure. Nathan Gunn brought a full-flavored baritone and physical ease to Paul. As Dodge, William Burden's graceful tenor could be heartbreaking. Jennifer Zetlan was a confidently feisty Flier, Luretta Bybee a sympathetic Amanda, and Jane Eaglen a spirited Aunt Helen. Museop Kim, David Won and Karen Vuong were compelling in their roles as both Vietnamese villagers and American hospital staff. Nicholas Coppolo as Icarus and the Young Boy and Jordan Bisch as Daedalus and the Young Boy's Father made perfect complements.
Seattle Opera's "Amelia" plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Saturday, May 22. Prices starting at $25. Tickets/information: 389-7676, seattleopera.org.[[In-content Ad]]