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Volume 34
Issue 34
 
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A Wagner party unlike any the world has ever seen
A Wagner party unlike any the world has ever seen
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

The world's first International Wagner Competition at McCaw Hall last Saturday was not only an event full of thrilling moments; it was also a party! The ovation that greeted Speight Jenkins when he came out on the stage to open the competition made apparent (1) the appreciation of this sold-out audience for his having brought to Seattle such superb presentations of Wagner's works; (2) the joy we all were feeling in anticipation of a very special evening, even without an opera by Wagner; and (3) that this event was free of the solemnity that often accompanies a Wagner opera. That almost religious seriousness was replaced by a festive celebratory vibe that said, "Hey, we share a passion, and we trust this man to bring us a good measure of that special satisfaction that can come only from great Wagner voices."

And deliver such satisfaction he did! The least exciting of the eight singers had nonetheless much to like. The best of them were thrilling beyond the ability of words to convey. And, best of all, we get to attend this party again in two years. When Susan Hutchinson, from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, announced that the Fund would fund another such Competition in 2008, Speight about leapt off the floor, for he had not been told this ahead of time.

Mr. Jenkins had auditioned dozens of singers in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, and - of course - Seattle. Instead of the expected majority of sopranos and baritones, we got no less than four tenors (!!), one bass, one baritone, and two sopranos.

One of those tenors, Jason Collins, opened the Competition. His voice was not only strong and easily produced from top to bottom; it was also beautiful and rich. What it lacked was only the finest measure of passion. That was NOT lacking in the next tenor, Paul McNamara, whose "Rome Narrative" from 'Tannhauser' was one of the most exciting deliveries of the evening. A short man, he nonetheless delivered plenty of power, with a vocal technique that was flawless. (I learned later from Speight that he was suffering from a chest cold.) But what made his singing especially thrilling to me was the shimmer in his voice and a quality that reminded me of the great Lauritz Melchior. This was a tenor to watch! Unfortunately his second choice, "Nur eine Waffe taugt" from 'Parsifal,' was less convincing.

Soprano Miriam Murphy proved herself a budding Brunnhilde with her "Ewig war ich" from 'Siegfried.' Her voice was of course big and also beautiful, with a rich tone throughout the range except for a high C that seemed not part of the rest of the voice. However, she more than made amends for that note after intermission when she nailed Isolde's "Narrative and Curse," including a thrilling high C. What made her an almost certain winner was that she also pointed her words and delivered Isolde's passion in a way that threw me back in my seat.

When James Rutherford sang a stunning "Fliedermonolog" from 'Die Meistersinger,' and followed it later with a truly exciting Dutchman, the audience went wild. His voice was beautiful and warm, of ample size, and his manner had a natural honesty that reminded me of what I love about Ben Heppner. One could hope that Speight might plan to revive "The Flying Dutchman" if he could engage this singer.

The other singer with the most to offer was soprano Dorothy Grandia. Not a Brunnhilde voice, she nonetheless delivered a fine "Dich, teure Halle" and followed it later with the difficult "Senta's Ballad." The latter revealed an impressive technique and power utterly free from strain. Grandia is a handsome woman and sang to considerable dramatic effect.

There were other exciting moments: great voices but lacking passion, intelligent singing but not seemingly directed to the audience, lovely voices but missing some essential element. One consistently exciting element all evening was the superb conducting of Asher Fisch. The members of the Seattle Symphony have never sounded more impressive or alive.

I wish there could have been three winners instead of two because I would have liked to include Paul McNamara. But nobody could argue with the final selection of Miriam Murphy and James Rutherford for the two equal prizes of $15,000. (Rutherford also won top honors, first from the vote of the orchestra members, who could only hear and not see him, and second the audience award.) The judges were an impressive bunch: Stephanie Blythe, Dr. Dorothea Glatt, Sir Peter Jonas, Peter Kazaras, and Stephen Wadsworth.

I fantasize that Seattle will have an "in" with some of these singers for future Wagner operas here. Certainly, Speight has given them an excellent showcase to help boost their careers. And I can't wait for the next such competition in 2008!



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

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