An American pilot is lost in action in Vietnam. Thirty years later his daughter, still unstrung with grief, is expecting her first child. Close to term, she dreams gloomy dreams of Icarus, the boy who perished because he flew too close to the sun. Overhead, unseen by the distraught mother-to-be, hovers an indomitable spirit coyly called the Flier, patently none other than the legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Our pilot's daughter—Earhart's namesake—is married to an engineer who develops top-secret aircraft, probably bombers.
Does this sound more like a piece of installation art than the blueprint for thrilling drama? Yes, I thought so. Daron Aric Hagen's studied, achingly sincere Amelia, commissioned by the Seattle Opera, is written two acts, each about one hour in length, each in three scenes. Act 1 is nonlinear with a vengeance. Locations, moments in time, and levels of reality collide in vintage Cubist fashion. Many good, decent people emote in a broad flow of rueful sentiment. Stoicism and compassion are the order of the day. In addition to the adult Amelia, we see her dewy-eyed childhood self, Young Amelia. Shortly before intermission, a flashback to her father's capture and interrogation at the hands of the North Vietnamese jolts events briefly to life. For the rest, the first act unfolds like a church service, in a single, solemn largo that inspires a dutiful attention, if little excitement.
But fasten your seatbelts for Act 2, when Amelia storms her husband's office, in mounting hysterics about the presumed nature of his work, only to collapse in an unexplained coma that lasts three days. At the hospital, the doctors recommend that her baby be delivered by Caesarean, but she comes to just in time to insist on natural childbirth. Say not the struggle naught availeth! After a protracted labor, the baby—a girl—arrives safely.
Though the overarching chronology of the second act is straightforward as that of the first is not, the free-associative hocus-pocus continues. In the hospital bed next to Amelia's, a boy (formerly Icarus) lies dying, haunted by frantic fantasies of falling. Her Aunt Helen, who happens to be a midwife, flies in from afar, sings hymns, and gets bossy with the medical staff. Amelia's dead father drops in for a heart-to-heart in which she is an equal participant. Before he goes, he delivers his last letter, incinerated in Vietnam over 30 years before, yet the paper remains there on her breast to be discovered and read aloud by her husband before she wakes. The Flier wanders around, absorbed in her own concerns, congratulating herself on a life well lived. "And I was never bored," she muses moments before the curtain falls. But it is Amelia who has the last word. "Anything is possible… Hi, baby."
A published poet, the librettist Gardner McFall, herself the daughter of a lost pilot, is much more at home with meditation and metaphor than dramatic dialogue. ("Heaven is a gown I'd love to wear," Young Amelia sings early on. Later, ill-advisedly, McFall has Amelia quote Edna St. Vincent Millay.) The composer, with several previous operas to his credit, pours his most gripping music into dark, thickly textured neoromantic interludes between scenes. Yet as music theater, Amelia has moments of striking originality. There are passages in Vietnamese, supposedly in cadences that accurately reflect the speech patterns and tonal inflections of that exotic language. Beeping medical monitors weave into the orchestral fabric of the hospital scenes in a way that is ingenious, apt, and surprisingly beautiful. And a grand ensemble for the real and imaginary characters, developed from Aunt Helen's hymns, builds to a swelling climax.
In the production by Stephen Wadsworth, who also crafted the story, the scene in Vietnam was presented the old-fashioned way, with scenery solid enough to take up residence in. For the rest, found objects from the real world (a vintage automobile, a hospital bed, the kitchen sink) were dropped into clean, abstract spaces that might do double duty as TV studios. In the most memorable stage picture, Icarus and his father Daedalus had set up shop in Amelia's house, attaching feathers to their wings. Where the material permitted, the acting was naturalistic, occasionally punctuated by incongruously grand gestures. But too much of the time, singers were marooned onstage with absolutely nothing to do but wait for cues that were long in coming.
Heard on May 19th (in the sixth of eight performances), the rising mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey threw herself into the angst of the title role with abandon, yet the character remained flat and sketchy. (Young Amelia was sung by the overeager Ashley Emerson, a soprano.) The men in Amelia's life—the tenor William Burden as her father, the baritone Nathan Gunn as her husband—came off as blandly sympathetic. The very young tenor Nicholas Coppolo made something dreamy and special of the dual role of Icarus and the Boy. Jennifer Zetlan's high, light soprano lent the Flier a cocky grace. Jane Eaglen—a local favorite as Isolde, Brünnhilde, Fidelio, and Rosalinde (!)—pulled off a star turn as Aunt Helen, her heroic soprano pealing with clarion authority. At the podium, Gerard Schwarz began phlegmatically (or was Hagen to blame?), but gathered momentum in the second act.
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Commissioned by the Seattle Opera, Amelia received its world premiere on May 8, the first new work presented by the company during the 27-year tenure of the general director and former music critic Speight Jenkins. Under a grant secured by the Seattle Opera, funding is in place for two other American companies to revive the original production. Many impresarios have visited Seattle to gauge their interest in the piece. Announcements about future presentations of Amelia are expected in due course.