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A Fool’s Errand, Deftly Handled

Patrick Summers

By David Mermelstein

DALLAS -- Opera in Texas may lack the deep roots it has elsewhere in the U.S, but its ambitions have always been grand. How else to explain why the Dallas Opera brought Maria Callas here in 1958. Or how the Houston Grand Opera premiered a string of new works in the 1980s, including John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” Or how Dallas not only opened a spectacular new home last October, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, but also chose as the main event of its inaugural season the premiere, on April 30, of “Moby-Dick,” with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer.

In many ways, adapting Herman Melville’s sprawling novel to the stage is a fool’s errand – a burden shared in this case, at least financially, by the State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera, San Diego Opera and San Francisco Opera. The book’s whale-sized ambitions cannot be contained within the confines of a theater – and certainly not at three hours including intermission. Yet Heggie and Scheer, in collaboration with dramaturge/director Leonard Foglia and his production team, must be given credit for creating a coherent and satisfying music drama on their own terms, if not always on Melville’s. Rather than attempt to embrace the author’s vast universe of themes, their work adheres to only the outlines of the tale, carefully depicting the whaler Pequod’s doomed journey. The novel’s bigger themes are at best implied.

Heggie has long been knocked by critics for the surface appeal of his music, the implication being that little lies beneath. This effort is unlikely to alter such views. If anything, “Moby-Dick” is more overtly accessible than much of his previous work. Though undeniably pretty and well turned, its music has the repetitive lyricism of a film score – cue feelings of loneliness or ambition; cue the majesty of the sea. And when the strains aren’t uncomfortably similar to those by Bernard Herrmann or John Williams, whiffs of Sondheim and even Puccini permeate the ocean air. Britten resides here, too, though mostly in spirit.

But is all that so terrible? Surely there is something to be said for a work that might draw the uninitiated to opera, even if it does alienate more sophisticated listeners. Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking” (2000) found many fans; “Moby-Dick” could have similar, or even greater, success. Foglia’s production (with sets by Robert Brill, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Donald Holder and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy) emerges as an operatic game-changer. Largely through the use of state-of-the art projections, Foglia renders the visceral power of whale hunts and other aspects of life at sea with a realism that would have been difficult to achieve via traditional stagecraft. Some of his choices – a rendering of the Pequod in the blue hues and precise lines of an architectural drawing, for example – made one fear that opera productions could soon bear a strange resemblance to documentaries on the History Channel. But the overall effect, especially when combined with the three-dimensional impact of singers performing from rigging high above the stage, was frankly thrilling.

No less impressive was the cast. Detractors of Heggie’s music take note: he always gets first-rate singers. Here the roster was topped by tenor Ben Heppner, as Ahab, a part he was born to play, and his success in it should rightly be considered a triumph. He may also deserve some sort of combat pay for having to sing nearly his entire role while balanced on a peg leg, which he did without the slightest hint of trepidation. Vocally, he was consistently assured – something that is, sadly, not always true for this often unlucky singer – and though the voice cannot be called beautiful, it ought not to be for this role.

Beauty was found other places, though, especially in the vocalism of rising lyric tenor Stephen Costello, as Greenhorn (a.k.a. Ishmael), and in the chiseled, aching tones of baritone Morgan Smith’s Starbuck, the narrative’s conscience. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg and soprano Talise Trevigne in the trouser role of Pip also impressed. And veteran baritone Robert Orth made the most of Stubb, the opera’s comic-relief role.

Patrick Summers, long a trusted associate of the composer, invested the score with deep commitment and secured crack playing from the pit. It’s worth noting that the singers, orchestra and a 40-strong male chorus were all shown to fine advantage in the Winspear, a house that seems an important addition to the operatic landscape in Dallas and beyond.