‘Moby Dick’ is nothing short of magnificent

Patrick Summers
Fort Worth Star Telegram

By Chris Shull

DALLAS -- Let the accolades rain on Moby-Dick. The opera by Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer is in its world premiere run by the Dallas Opera, and even a glitch in stage mechanics that deflated the climax of Wednesday's performance at the Winspear Opera House could not dim the work's brilliance.

Scheer condensed Melville's sprawling novel about Captain Ahab's hunt for a white whale into a poignant, poetic search for life's meaning -- while retaining the story's spirit of adventure. Heggie's music, led with natural pacing by conductor Patrick Summers, painted the expanse of ocean, the force of waves, and the character of the ship's crew with freshness and vital feeling.

Sung conversations, duets and ensembles flowed seamlessly, as did movement staged by Leonard Foglia.

The few stand-alone arias reinforced dramatic turning points. The singing was superb. Ben Heppner exalted as Captain Ahab, his steely tenor defiant, then surprisingly tender. Morgan Smith's baritone held sonorous gravity as Starbuck. Stephen Costello's tenor flowed with supple lyricism as Greenhorn; Jonathan Lemalu gave touching personality to Queequeg. Robert Orth took a melodic turn as Stubb, and Talise Trevigne, the only woman in the cast, played the boy Pip as a lively presence.

The chorus of sailors prepared by Alexander Rom sang with finesse and gusto. Costumes by Jane Greenwood were realistic to 1800s sailors.

The minimal but lifelike set by Robert Brill was enhanced by atmospheric video projections by Elaine McCarthy and lighting designer Donald Holder. Backgrounds depicted scudding clouds, tumultuous waves and shimmering blue depths. The stage was crisscrossed with ropes, climbing ladders and giant sails against a curved ship's hull. Ghostly 3-D graphics outlined masts and rigging and pulled viewers above and about the moving vessel.

On Wednesday, Ahab's climactic confrontation with Moby-Dick lacked the rest of the opera's lively coordination between acting and special effects. As a video ocean boiled and music roiled, Heppner climbed into a cubbyhole and lay there, a wimpy end to a forceful portrayal. Sliding scenery was supposed to cover his exit.

Never has the Dallas Opera married design and music with such innovation. A technical malfunction could not deny the triumph of Moby-Dick.