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Opera review: Triumphant world premiere of ‘Moby-Dick’ captures the elemental forces of the sea, Ahab’s obsession

05.01.10
Patrick Summers
Dallas Morning News

By Scott Cantrell

Everyone exhale now. Moby-Dick, the opera, is a triumph.

Commissioned by the Dallas Opera in partnership with four other companies, the new Jake Heggie-Gene Scheer opera had its world premiere Friday night at the Winspear Opera House.    Stunningly staged and sung, it captures the elemental forces of the sea and Captain Ahab's obsession with the great white whale that has maimed him. Compressing a thick, densely written novel into a three-hour opera, it also highlights human dramas between two pairs of characters. 

Ahab, heroic but unhinged, finds his foil in his first mate Starbuck, who pleads, vainly, for sense and sensibility. Greenhorn, at first a lost, impatient young man, finds his emotional moorings with the ostensibly "primitive" but paradoxically wise South Seas islander Queequeg.   Scheer seamlessly tunes his own prose and poetry to Melville's.   Heggie composes vocal lines that make sense vocally and illumine words and emotions. He relies a little too often on hypnotic minimalist accompaniments, but in general his orchestral and choral writing are fine-tuned to the drama and often beautiful. He achieves lushness with often complex harmonies and counterpoints.

The opera's first act is flawless timed and proportioned. The second would be better minus Greenhorn's rather uninspired aria around Queequeg's coffin and with its stormy final entr'acte cut in half.   Dallas Opera artistic director Jonathan Pell has assembled a dream cast. And stage director Leonard Foglia makes this a grippingly physical production, singers fearlessly clambering up ladders and sliding down sloping walls. Bill Lengfelder has coached a genuinely frightening fight scene.
One of the biggest-name singers around these days, Ben Heppner simply is Ahab. Hobbling heavily on his peg leg, he exudes both macho charisma and hints of schizophrenia. And he sings a role of Wagnerian heft with a beefy tenor of many colors and textures, and strikingly clear diction.
Morgan Smith's strong, dense baritone perfectly suits the sturdy Quaker Starbuck. Queequeg is touchingly impersonated by Jonathan Lemalu, with a bass-baritone of depth and nobility. Stephen Costello's lyric tenor sounds pressed in the role of Greenhorn, and he does strange things to vowels; he'd do better to back off a little. 

Singing the trousers roles of the young Pip, Talise Trevigne supplies the opera's one female voice, a radiant soprano. Robert Orth is the endearingly earthy Stubb, Matthew O'Neill a Flask with a gleaming tenor, Jonathan Beyer a solid Captain Gardiner.    The chorus, prepared by Alexander Rom, sings stirringly and very well indeed.    Patrick Summers is the sure and sympathetic conductor, and apart from some high violin smudges the orchestra played splendidly. But both chorus and orchestra sometimes overwhelmed solo voices.  

With sophisticated projections by Elaine J. McCarthy and arresting lighting by Donald Holder, set designer Robert Brill works wonders with stylized masts, riggings and sails. Jane Greenwood supplies a period-perfect mix of costumes.