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Seen and Heard Competition  Review


International Wagner Competition: members of the Seattle Symphony, competing singers, cond. Asher Fisch, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 19.08.2006 (BJ)



For once, that tired old phrase “a star is born” seemed appropriate. There is an elusive quality that sets a performer apart. It’s called “presence.” When James Rutherford strode onto the stage, perhaps half an hour into the finals of the Seattle Opera’s inaugural International Wagner Competition, I knew in my bones that this was going to be something in a different class from what we–an audience of more than 1,500–had heard up to then. Don’t ask me how I knew. I had never heard of this 34-year-old English baritone before, and I had nothing palpable to go on. But indeed, so it proved; and a good thing too, for the opening stages of the evening had been almost unrelievedly disappointing.

Let it never be said that I conceal my prejudices. For a critic to do that is, in any case, a disservice to his readers. I am not a Wagnerian. I have never been able to understand the reverence with which the composer’s vaunted Leitmotif technique is regarded. Many years ago, attending a play at a theater in London, I had the misfortune to sit just in front of a couple who insisted on enlightening each other at every turn about what was happening on stage: “Oh, look, he’s coming into the house”–“Ooh, she’s taking the bicycle!” It’s bad enough when members of the audience do this, but Wagner does it himself, with all his simple-minded Leitmotif-ic signposts alerting us to the fact that “Hey, look–it’s a sword!” and “Listen, people, this is love!” and so forth.

There were the inevitable touches of that on the program assembled for the eight finalists we heard on the evening in question, though of course, when the system is presented in the form of what Sir Donald Tovey used to call “bleeding chunks,” the effect is not as tedious or as obviously simplistic as when you encounter it at full music-drama length. Much of the music was irretrievably banal, especially in the squareness of its harmonic rhythm, four-bar phrases being succeeded with dreary predictability by yet more four-bar phrases. Not all of it had that effect, however, and this is where Mr. Rutherford came in.

Until this point, having arrived at the hall expecting to hear a glorious array of great young Wagner voices, we had been treated instead to a deal of yelling and screaming (and the poor tenor who, as an alternate, stood in–presumably at short notice–when one of the eight official finalists became indisposed was to perpetrate some strangulated yelps of his own as the evening progressed). The first sign of better things had come when the German bass Carsten Wittmoser delivered himself creditably of “Tatest du’s wirklich,” from Tristan und Isolde. But then, quite suddenly, with “Was duftet doch der Flieder” from Die Meistersinger,” James Rutherford confronted us with Hans Sachs in the very flesh. And the music, too, took on at a stroke a quite different aspect of flow and grace.

Something similar happened in the second half of the program, with his performance of the Dutchman’s “Die Frist ist um,” from Der fliegende Holländer. Mr. Rutherford is 34. His voice will undoubtedly develop further in richness of resource, but it is already a superb instrument, deep, warm, and clear, and he wields it with both dynamic sensitivity and firmness of line. More importantly, he was the only singer of the evening who really made me care about the character he was assuming. This was not mere impersonation but true human and dramatic self-identification. Most of the competitors gave us the experience of hearing a soprano singing this, or a tenor singing that. Rutherford was Hans Sachs, and he was the Dutchman, and we loved the one and grieved profoundly for the other.

I take the liberty of saying “we” with little risk of misrepresenting my fellow audience members, because in their own vote they gave him favorite status–as did the orchestra members, who, impressively enough, had requested that they too might have a voice in the voting. The panel of judges (Stephanie Blythe, Dr. Dorothea Glatt, Sir Peter Jonas, Peter Kazaras and Stephen Wadsworth) ended by awarding only two of the three $15,000 prizes originally planned for, and they gave them to Rutherford and to Miriam Murphy. In Isolde’s Narrative and Curse, her second offering near the end of the program, the Irish soprano showed some genuine talent and some fine high notes. For myself, I should have picked Mr. Wittmoser as my number two. But the choice of Ms. Murphy was justifiable, the choice of Rutherford was inevitable, and the decision to award only two prizes signaled the judges’ awareness that the rest of the field was really not up the standard one had hoped for on such an occasion.

I am delighted to have been present at the unveiling, in James Rutherford, of one of the major Wagner singers of the coming decades. Splendid support from Asher Fisch and members of the Seattle Symphony, who opened each half with a suitably stirring prelude, completed a fascinating evening, and a good time was had by all. Even, whatever my feelings about Wagner, by me.



Bernard Jacobson



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