Moby-Dick premieres in Dallas

Patrick Summers
The Washington Post

By Anne Midgette

Before its premiere at the Dallas Opera on Friday night, “Moby-Dick,” by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, seemed like a dubious proposition. A long novel full of philosophical exegeses, its action largely limited to a group of men living on a ship for months and months, didn’t seem like the best candidate for a work of musical theater (although Britten, of course, did something similar with “Billy Budd”). Furthermore Heggie, the composer who had a public success with “Dead Man Walking” and has struggled since, is generally thought of as somewhat lightweight.
Surprise. “Moby-Dick,” though not perfect, turned out to be one of the most satisfying new operas I’ve seen premiered. And while new work is often seen by audiences as more a duty than a pleasure, the opening-night crowd in Dallas broke into spontaneous applause three times during the first half, and screamed and yelled its approval at the curtain calls. It was a wonderful and rare reminder that new opera truly can excite people if it’s done right.
The Dallas Opera certainly did right by this one. The casting was stunning -- I’ve seldom heard such a uniformly strong cast -- and the production (directed by Leonard Foglia) was smart and theatrical, making excellent use of high-tech video projections (by Elaine McCarthy), mainly of white-on black architectural line drawings of the ship Pequod at different angles, or evocative footage of the roiling ocean. The material sets (by Robert Brill) mainly consisted of ropes and ladders and sails, with a descending platform on the back wall that helped define different spaces on the ship. For all its size, the production felt elegant and spare; the stage pictures were slightly abstract, yet there was never any question about where you were. This was opera as theater, calculated to work dramatically on stage. Would that we saw more of it.

There’s something to be said for experience.   Both Heggie and Scheer have clearly learned something from plying their trade over the years. Heggie’s music can be a little facile, a little derivative: references in this piece range from Glass to Puccini to Britten.  It also has a slightly anodyne quality, lulling the listener with through-composed pleasantness, in spite of Patrick Summers’s spirited, committed conducting.  However, Heggie can write very well for the voice, a trait all too rare among many living composers.  Scheer, too, has a lighter side; some of his rhymes verge on jingles.   However, these factors were much less apparent than in earlier works by either artist: “Moby-Dick,” unlike many new operas, has come out of the gate as a solid piece of work, ready to stand or fall on its own merits. (It will have a chance to do so; co-commissioned by a consortium of opera houses, it will have at least four more productions, starting in 2012 in San Diego.)

And there’s something to be said for casting.  In the central role of Captain Ahab, Ben Heppner gamely hobbled around stage on a peg-leg, communicated the character’s manic obsession so as to make credible his crew’s veneration and fear of him, and sounded the best I’ve heard him in years (despite a couple of near-cracks).  His counterweight was the book’s narrator, here called “Greenhorn,” a young callow first-time sailor searching for his own identity.  Stephen Costello’s clear, lighter-weight tenor seems to be developing beautifully; he sounded much firmer and more authoritative than when I’d last heard him, and got through a huge evening of singing -- Heggie makes considerable demands of his leads -- with aplomb.  Ahab’s other foil is Starbuck, the first mate who keeps trying to reason with him, to no avail (each nearly murders the other). This was sung by Morgan Smith, a baritone with a strong mid-weight voice and acting ability whom I will be looking out for in future.

Stereotypes can work better in opera than in other forms.  The requisite grizzled old salt, Mr. Stubb, pipe clenched between his teeth, was sung by Robert Orth, who succeeded in making his character a beloved comic figure in short order and led the local-color-providing sea-chanties (the chorus was also very strong).  The requisite pants-role cabin boy, Pip, provided the welcome leavening of a female voice and the luminous soprano Talise Trevigne, who actually brought conviction to her tambourine-wielding, merry character and his subsequent insanity. Trevigne managed the feat of singing gorgeously in a scene when Pip, lost at sea, sings suspended some 20 feet in the air, struggling to keep his head above water, out of sight of land, surrounded by evocative projections of the roiling ocean: one of the scenes the audience greeted, at its end, with spontaneous applause.

Scheer also created a brilliant beginning, and a brilliant end. The opera’s first scene opens with Queequeg, played by Jonathan Lemalu, making ritual invocations in a foreign language and a dark, deep, almost other-worldly voice, chanting among the sleeping bodies of the other sailors in the hold. Finally “Greenhorn” protests he can’t sleep and gets up to talk to him: an arresting start that made you want to hear more, and established who the characters were without too much gratuitous exposition. Lemalu brought authority, vocal richness, and even the right ethnicity (he is of Samoan descent) to the part, acting as a kind of moral compass standing slightly apart from the other crewmen.

Strong endings are an art of their own; and here, Scheer showed impressive mastery. One irritant for many was that the young protagonist was called “Greenhorn” rather than Ishmael, underlining the character’s rawness, lack of roots, and lack of identity (which “Greenhorn” elaborates on in a duet with Queequeg, singing of wanting to go to his island and learn new names for things, and for himself), but seeming to disregard the book’s most famous opening line. Then comes the final scene: the Pequod has gone own with all hands, and “Greenhorn” is drifting atop Queequeg’s coffin in the open ocean. A passing boat spots him, and its captain (Jonathan Beyer), who has contacted the Pequod before, asks him from offstage who he is. “Greenhorn” raises himself from the coffin, there is a long pause, and suddenly you see where this is going. “Call me Ishmael,” he sings: the last line of the opera. The narrator has found a name for himself; and this is where his subsequent narration -- the book, written after the fact -- begins. After the excitement attending this premiere, it may be a beautiful beginning for “Moby-Dick,” the opera, as well.