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Originally published August 10, 2014 at 10:47 AM | Page modified August 10, 2014 at 9:35 PM

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Galaxy of opera stars fete Seattle’s Speight Jenkins

It’s hard to pinpoint the most moving event in Saturday night’s “Speight Celebration Concert,” as fans said goodbye to the stellar 31-year tenure of Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins.


Special to The Seattle Times

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It was a fabulous evening. Seattle is so lucky to have a world class opera company, thanks to the passion and... MORE

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Maybe it was the moment when baritone Greer Grimsley choked up in the final bars of Wotan’s Farewell (in “Die Walküre”).

Or the soul-searing soprano of Mary Elizabeth Williams, singing the wrenching “My Man’s Gone Now” (from “Porgy and Bess”).

It’s hard to pinpoint the most moving event in Saturday night’s “Speight Celebration Concert,” as fans said goodbye to the stellar 31-year tenure of Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins. From beginning to end, the evening was a moving and thoroughly affectionate tribute to a man who’s going to be very hard to replace — even though hopes are high for Jenkins’ successor, Aidan Lang, who is figuratively waiting in the wings.

All the artists performing in the farewell gala donated their services, which in itself is a mighty accolade to the man who featured them in so many memorable productions. With Joyce Castle as master of ceremonies, the arias and scenes on Saturday night presented singers of all types and nationalities.

They were backed by the Seattle Opera Chorus (in top form), and led by two conductors: Carlos Montanaro and Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

Pervading the entire evening was a sense of grateful goodwill and generous helpings of Wagner, the composer for which the company has become famous. Starting things off on a literal high note, a section of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” with two stars of the 2013 “Ring” (Grimsley and soprano Alwyn Mellor) presented the archetypical scene with Brünnhilde’s famous “Hojotoho” battle cries.

Mighty mezzo Stephanie Blythe took over the stage next, singing a hilarious aria from Offenbach’s frothy “La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein” with the men of the Seattle Opera Chorus.

It would be hard to find two better-matched and mellifluous singers than tenor William Burden and baritone Brett Polegato, who sang the gorgeous “Au fond du temple saint” duet from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Arthur Woodley offered a noble Bellini aria, and Peter Rose was an affecting Boris Godunov.

The gala was a good night for the mighty tenor Antonello Palombi, who sang both an aria from Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” and a duet with Nuccia Focile (from Verdi’s “Otello,” with such an explicit threat of violence that you wanted to urge Focile to make sure her life-insurance policy was up to date).

Another duet, with the powerhouse pair of Grimsley and Blythe, fairly crackled with menace as the two plotted against the hapless Samson (in Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah”).

There were familiar pieces (Mellor’s very fine “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde”) and obscure ones (Polegato’s lovely, honeyed aria from Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt”). There was the chance to hear the radiant Sieglinde of Christiane Libor, and the frightening Iago of Gordon Hawkins.

Kate Lindsey turned in a “La Cenerentola” aria of great clarity, range and technical finesse, and the young tenor Issachah Savage — winner of the International Wagner Competition only two days previously — gave hope for the future with his radiant “Mein lieber Schwan” (from “Lohengrin”).

Stephen Wadsworth — director of 27 shows in the past 31 years — gave a heartfelt tribute to Jenkins, drawing a big laugh by calling him “the only man I ever met who talked more than I did.”

And then there was the man himself, onstage with all the performers as they sang the joyous “Wach’ auf!” from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” What a classy send-off for Jenkins, who has lifted Seattle Opera to new heights and earned the heartfelt gratitude of opera lovers worldwide.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.



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