A Whale of a Show: Moby Dick is a success for Dallas Opera

Patrick Summers
Theater Jones

By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Now that Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick has had its much-anticipated and highly successful premiere, we can only wonder at the secrecy that surrounded the Dallas Opera's maiden voyage of the commissioned work, which debuted at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House Friday.

A review of a major world premiere opera has to depend, perhaps unfairly, on a one-time hearing of a completely unknown score. But whatever the ultimate judgment of the music, which more time and familiarity will better determine, Moby-Dick is unquestionably a superb theater piece. Heggie is a surefire opera composer, and what he lacks in melodic gift he makes up for in pure stage savvy.

Moby-Dick mesmerized and thrilled the audience. Both the Dallas Opera's production, directed by Leonard Foglia, and the opera itself, are a triumph.

Gene Scheer’s libretto works a small miracle in condensing a massive jumble of a book into three hours of opera. Melville’s Moby-Dick hangs long philosophic wanderings over a thin gruel of a plot. Like the unfortunate whales the Pequod whaling vessel encounters, Scheer boils the book down to a bucket of plot oil. While Heggie’s music does not differentiate them quite as clearly as does Scheer’s libretto, he presents his characters quickly and gives them individual personalities in short order. And he stays amazingly close to Melville’s intentions.

It is way too easy to pick out passages that sound like one composer or another in any new work. Even chaos can sound like John Cage. This game is especially easy in a work like Moby-Dick, which is essentially tonal and composed in a neo-romantic voice. During intermission, Puccini was the influence du jour named at the cocktail tables, especially when the discussion turned to the oddly familiar tune that ended the first act. It was impossible to put a finger on, but everyone thought it sounded like something. E lucevan le stelle from Tosca, perhaps? No, something else. The worthless speculation continued.

Just as many proteins taste "just like chicken" to unaccustomed palettes, much neo-tonal contemporary music sounds “just like Puccini” to the casual listener. Heggie’s music is a brew of influences. It is hardly just like Puccini—no more than frog legs taste exactly like chicken. Impressionism, minimalism, folk music, modal tonalities, bi-tonalism, parallelism, Wagnerism and a host of other “isms” are all artfully combined into Heggie's unmistakable voice. He takes the best of these compositional tools and combines them into something strikingly original, if not completely new.

Director Foglia has a concept of how to make complicated stage business a reality without breaking the bank. He dips into the same impressionistic sources that Heggie’s music does, greatly aided by Robert Brill’s sets and Elaine McCarthy’s projections.

The scenic design showcases projected visuals and high-tech ship accoutrement, from climbable mast-like structures to ropes and sails. A great wall is the side of the ship but also becomes other settings within the vessel, as cleverly hidden compartments are revealed. Scrims move in and out and become everything from a visiting ship to the disaster that is the inevitable end of the story. Donald Holder’s lighting poetically conveys the ship in the vast icy blue ocean, and subtly pinpoints the location of the major characters on a crowded stage.

Jane Greenwood’s costumes are less effective than other aspects of the production. The sailors look more like a group of villagers from Cavalleria rusticana, mostly wearing shirts and pants and even coats (although some are shirtless). There is the occasional natty string tie. Everyone seemed very neat and proper, and all the men’s clothing is spotlessly clean, which is not the image one usually has of a crew at sea for months at a time. As trained by chorus master Alexander Rom, though, they sing with great precision and a robust, masculine sound. Even a fight breaks out (realistic fight choreography is by Bill Lengfelder). The sea air is redolent with testosterone.

Ben Heppner is one of the greatest heldentenors working today. Here, he's in terrific voice and is chillingly believable as the obsessed Captain Ahab. How he hobbles around all evening on that peg-leg is a mystery, and a credit to perseverance.  Stephen Costello, as the Greenhorn (whom we later find out is the Ishmael who narrates the novel), sings convincingly but his voice type is too close to Heppner’s to offer the contrast needed in an all-male cast. A young tenor with a more Italian sound would have been a better choice. Baritone Morgan Smith, as Starbuck, both acts and sings the role with a commitment to the anti-Ahab role both Melville and Scheer assigned him.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu has the hardest task, of portraying the Pacific Islander Queequeg. Melville imbued this character with aspects of everything foreign to white Europeans, and Lemalu portrays this strangeness with dignity.

Luxury casting comes in the form of outstanding baritone Robert Orth, as Stubb. Tenor Matthew O'Neill is a perfect foil for him, as Flask. Soprano Talise Trevigne is excellent as the cabin boy, Pip, and her creamy soprano offers welcome relief from all the male voices.

Patrick Summers conducts a carefully paced and highly colored performance, and the Dallas Opera Orchestra responds beautifully.

The cast and creative team deserved their opening night standing ovation, which also goes to the Dallas Opera for bravely commissioning a significant new work—always a risky business. Moby-Dick proves that such risks are worth taking.

Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that neither the score nor libretto were available to critics prior to opening, but that was not true. As opening night grew near, they were available for perusal at the Dallas Opera offices. TheaterJones regrets the error.