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Aug 10, 2007
V 35 Issue 32

 
 
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Seattle Opera's reputation for great Wagner lives on
Seattle Opera's reputation for great Wagner lives on
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Though my partner won't let me tell you the affectionate but disgusting nickname the standees had, as we waited for standing room tickets at the old Met on 40th Street, for Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, I will say that from those days long ago, this opera has held a special place in my heart. The current performances at Seattle Opera may not quite capture all the electricity of Leonie Rysanek, George London, and the beautiful Tommy Schippers (conductor), but they come very close.

As exciting as the current singers were on opening night, the real star was conductor Asher Fisch. Awarded "Artist of the Year" for his conducting of last August's Der Rosenkavalier, this man drew magic from the members of the Seattle Symphony. First, there's the sheer sound that the great acoustics of McCaw Hall allowed to bloom magnificently in that room. So alive and so articulate was every note that one could know the story from the orchestra alone! Some of the great overture was slower than most conductors take it, but here was perfect proof that slower does not mean less intense or energetic. Asher Fisch is the reason I would like to be in the audience for every performance in this run. (The show runs through August 25th.)

Equally outstanding was the chorus. I should say choruses, because in this opera Wagner used choruses on-stage, off-stage, and in the pit. In every regard, the women and men of the Seattle Opera Chorus were as fine as you will ever hear at an opera. (They were definitely superior to those performances at the old Met.) Under Beth Kirchhoff, these singers have not only continued their great work under former Chorusmaster George Fiore; they have actually improved. And they played a major role in this opera.

Of course the major roles were really the Dutchman and his potential "salvation," Senta. In Greer Grimsley, we had a great Dutchman, both vocally and visually. Tall, dark, and very sexy, Grimsley conveyed limitless power, poetic longing, and bottomless anguish. His singing has grown so that he seldom needs to employ his full volume, preferring to keep his immense sound under greater control and in the service of a stunning vocal line and tonal beauty and expression. Even so, his long, opening monologue was more audible and more moving than I remember from the great George London. Here conductor Fisch perfectly avoided swamping Grimsley's sound while still giving us full orchestral thrust. In the great Act II duet, the Dutchman's opening lines were sung so quietly yet soaring that this reviewer "lost it" for the duration.

As if to show us and the Seattle Opera trustees the folly of choosing anyone else to sing Brunnhilde in the next Seattle RING, Jane Eaglen delivered a performance so warm, so fresh-sounding, and so masterful as to knock your socks off! She may not have looked the part, but this was one of those times that vocal supremacy wiped away any such objections. (Eaglen's size is less a concern for Brunnhilde than for the young dreamer, Senta.) Any reservations I had about her vocal estate after seeing her recent Lady Macbeth in Vancouver, BC, were dashed. She remains a supreme Wagnerian soprano of the age.

The large role of Daland was very well filled by Australian bass Daniel Sumegi in his Seattle Opera debut. A fine singer with an ample voice, he conveyed the material ambitions and paternal warmth of Senta's father with convincing ease. Even more exciting was the Seattle debut of tenor Jason Collins, who is from S. Carolina and was a finalist in the 2006 International Wagner Competition at McCaw Hall. He clearly loves being on the stage, shows considerable charm, and sings with confidence and impact. His tenor is bright, powerful and very attractive. I hope we see his dimpled smile on our stage again soon.

Jay Hunter Morris' singing of Senta's boyfriend, Erik, was the only mediocre element in this exciting evening. He looked the part and had excellent, attractive, and secure top notes, but the rest of the voice had a slightly wobbly and, to my ears, unpleasant sound. Lurretta Bybee (wife of Greer Grimsley) was more than adequate as Mary, who tried to save Senta from her obsession with the Dutchman.

'Der Fliegende Hollander' was Wagner's first opera to achieve enduring success. The shortest and most accessible of his works, it has "set" pieces and loads of strong melodies&the kind that send you home with the tunes still ringing in your head. If you have considered trying Wagner for the first time, you could not do better than the current production at Seattle Opera.

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

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