10 May 2010

Heggie’s Moby-Dick a whale of an opera

It’s glorious and it’s gripping; it’s grand — and it’s good! Indeed, Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, premiered by Dallas Opera in its handsome new Winspear Opera House on April 30, is a work that restores meaning to basic vocabulary made banal by overuse through the decades.

Heggie — assisted by his seasoned librettist Gene Scheer — has achieved something with Moby Dick that American opera has not experienced in a long time: they have created a work of quality that should garner itself an immediate place in the repertory of opera houses around the world.

Announcement of the commission — Dallas Opera’s first for the Wiinspear — raised eyebrows, for few could imagine a less operatic novel than Hermann Melville’s 1851 detailed account of sailing and whaling. Running 500 to 700 pages in standard editions, the book is often dark and diffuse — everything that an opera cannot be, if it is to reach an audience with its story. In a sense, of course, Melville made it easy for Sheer, for the many exegesis on whaling were easily excised as the librettist laid bare the soul of the novel in his focus on its characters.

As told in the opera Moby Dick is now a story that explores the raw basic forces of life, underscoring the darkness that drives men and sends them to perdition. The Great White Whale is only a means to that end. Indeed, Sheer’s Ahab, the man who has lost a leg to the animal upon whom he seeks revenge, is yet another Faust out to defy the less-than-benevolent god embodied in the whale.

It is this confrontation with “the basics,” the unembellished dark drives that send men on impossible adventures, that the audience feels first-hand in this three-hour opera. “Feels,” one emphasizes, for Heggie has written music — always accessible — that requires no major act of mediation through performers. The score speaks always with telling directness. There is never “time out” to be mere opera. It is visceral music; now and then one puts up one’s hand in defense. That’s why one is wrung out at the end of Moby Dick, for one has been through it all with the many sailors on the Pequod. The opera keeps attention riveted on the stage; the mind is not allowed to wander. Most amazing aspect of the opera is that there is no feeling of condensation or that anything has been left out. Heggie more than compensates in mesmerizing music for the liberties taken with Melville’s text.

Heggie’s progress as a composer is documented throughout the score, which is largely through-composed with arias and ensembles seamlessly woven into it. The orchestral interludes are destined to take their place next to the Sea Interludes from Benjamin’s Peter Grimes.

Moby Dick is a Dallas co-commission with San Francisco, San Diego and Calgary Operas and State Opera of South Australia, and one can only hope that the other companies have the high-tech facilities that enabled the Winspear to take full advantage of an awesome world of effects — photos, projections and sets — that added so much to this initial staging.


Director Leonard Foglia worked with the hand of a sorcerer to blend projection designs by Elaine McCarthy into an overpowering and effective whole with designs by Robert Brill and lighting by Donald Holder. Never did these visual aspects threaten the primacy of Heggie’s score, in which there is not one superfluous note.

Scheer achieved dramatic concentration by pairing Ahab — sung to perfection by veteran Ben Heppner - with first mate Starbuck — stunningly portrayed by Morgan Smith, a baritone at home in top German opera houses. They interlock with a second pairing: native and noble Queequeg, engrossingly portrayed by New Zealand Samoan Jonathan Lemalu, and Greenhorn, the young man out — Parsifal-like — to learn fear — so touchingly sung by young American tenor Stephen Costello.

Only in the final minutes of the work does Costello reveal that he is the man called Ishmael who opens the novel. He is of special interest as the one character who — in confronting fear — develops. The other three of this basic quartet remain what they were when the curtain rose.

Sole female in the cast was Talise Trevigne, whose touching incarnation of Cabin Boy Pip offered little hint of the successful Violetta, Lucia and Pamina that have made her famous in Europe.

Moby Dick is rich in powerful choruses — the major show-stoppers of the debut performance — admirable prepared by Alexander Rom.

Patrick Summers, Heggie perennial collaborator, evoked magnificent playing from the Dallas Opera Orchestra in giving birth to what is obviously a modern masterpiece of music theater.

(The opera will enlighten a young generation by revealing the source of the name Starbuck — even if it fails to explain the coffee company’s aversion to apostrophes.)

Wes Blomster