WNO’s spectacular, epic “Moby-Dick” a smash hit in debut

WNO’s spectacular, epic “Moby-Dick” a smash hit in debut

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The doomed crew of the Pequod in WNO's spectacular production of "Moby-Dick." (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2014 – The Washington National Opera opened its much-anticipated production of Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s nearly new opera “Moby-Dick” this Saturday past with a huge splash—no pun intended. In its East Coast premiere, this 2010 opera is unquestionably chock full of everything opera audiences crave but often don’t get. It’s truly a memorable event.

Its new-tonalist orchestral score is strikingly colorful, shifting and shimmering as the music and the story ride perilously atop physically and spiritually storm-tossed seas. Its English language lyrics, with ample borrowings from the biblical cadences of Herman Melville’s epic whale tale, come across crisply and well with the added plus of moving the story line along quite briskly. Its vocal and choral lines are, in the main, beautifully written in a modernist verismo style with quiet hat tips to Benjamin Britten and the later operas of Giuseppe Verdi. And its spectacular nautical set and well-designed and –executed special effects and costuming bring the “grand” back to the term “grand opera,” giving the customers 100 percent of what they pay to see. Big time.

The Production

More than any new or newish American opera we’ve seen in recent years, “Moby-Dick” is not only an admirable blend of music and lyrics. It’s the best operatic example we’ve yet seen of a new opera whose music, visuals, and execution not only excel from the artistic point of view, but plainly benefit as well from the rollout of an equally brilliant and well-executed business plan.

As the curtain gradually opens on the production, the audience gradually becomes aware that the entire set depicts the main deck of the Pequod, the 19th century whaling ship where most of Herman Melville’s lengthy and complex novelistic morality tale plays out. However, instead of today’s more typical painted backdrops and scenery, this is a main deck bristling with frantic activity and always-looming danger.

The stage becomes a veritable thicket of flying sails and treacherous, bristling rigging, all brilliantly conceived, architected and executed according to the vision of set designer Robert Brill. The rear portion of the design is a flexible, curved, white-painted decking that at times is part of the ship and at other moments become the perfect Cinerama-style screen for the well-articulated, Elaine J. McCarthy’s projected wireframe nautical drawings and strikingly realistic film sequences that place cast members in simulated, life-size whaling boats that appear to bob and roll on the dangerous waves.

The Pequod's crew transforming a harpooned whale into commercial oil. (Credit: Scott Suchman)
The Pequod’s crew transforming a harpooned whale into commercial oil. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Vaguely similar to the functionality of “the machine”—the controversial contraption used by the Met in their recently crafted revival of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle”—Mr. Brill’s wall also contains a huge but initially hidden central trap door that drops down on occasion to reveal key intervals in the action. These include a striking sequence during which the crew boils down a whale carcass in a huge try-pot, as well as the concluding scene which finds the story’s narrator—referred to here as “Greenhorn”—alone and adrift on the savage sea.

More than likely, the fantastic scenery and stagecraft for this production did not come cheaply, which is where the business part of this opera’s series of rolling premieres comes into play. But that’s where the business angle comes in.

The cost of this production’s design and execution was not borne by one or two opera companies on the usual tight budget as is generally the case with risky new productions today. Rather, five—count ‘em—opera companies underwrote this effort, with regional premieres taking place one after the other in a sequence clearly meant to generate operatic shock and awe. And, of course, advance buzz, too, as the five originating opera companies—first the Dallas Opera, and then the State Opera of South Australia, the Calgary Opera, the San Diego Opera and the San Francisco Opera—rolled the production out, one after the other.

With the originating opera companies located well to the west of the Mississippi, it was fortuitous that WNO snagged the East Coast premiere of this astonishing work. And it’s well in keeping with the company’s current Artistic Director Francesca Zambello’s evolving, American-centric vision, in this case bringing a new American opera based on one of this country’s most original, signature works of fiction to the nation’s capital city.

The premiere here is a real coup on another front, too. As the first production of the opera that goes beyond this work’s co-commissioners, WNO is making a statement that it’s not only okay, but a good idea for other companies to schedule this new opera themselves. And, judging from the boisterously enthusiastic reception accorded “Moby-Dick” by the capacity opening-night audience, other companies might begin to do just that.

The Story

The original “Moby-Dick,” of course, was Herman Melville’s masterpiece of a novel, a dense, somewhat daunting tome of some 900 pages in the original—notable because many have only encountered this classic in an abridged form which cuts the interesting nautical trivia, political and social asides, and literary, philosophical and Biblical allusions that make this 1851 novel far more than just another whale tale. The novel is also notable for being “multicultural” before its time, crewed by mostly experienced seamen and harpooners of many races, religions and social strata from around the globe.

Famed Arlington, Virginia-based tenor Carl Tanner stars as Captain Ahab in WNO’s production of “Moby-Dick.” (Credit: Scott Suchman)

The central character in the novel is the methodical, driven Captain Ahab, a widely-respected senior officer who is, however, going off the deep end when we meet him. Ahab is increasingly obsessed with revenge, driven to seek and destroy Moby-Dick, the great white sperm whale that had taken one of his legs in an earlier encounter.

The name “Ahab” is a clear allusion to the ancient and controversial king of Israel who married the equally notorious Jezebel and was prone to indulge in idolatry. Like the biblical Ahab, Melville’s captain is irrevocably driven toward a final—and fatal—encounter with the enemy upon his own watery field of battle, one that will take most of his crew with him.

As is so often necessary in opera, librettist Gene Scheer chooses to abridge Melville’s epic along predictable lines, eliminating most of the “extraneous” material in the novel the better to get down to the basic story line and focusing on the key, singable moments in the plot. True, the literary richness of Melville’s masterpiece is gone in this opera, but Mr. Scheer knew it had to go. No modern audience will pay for, let alone sit still for the five solid days it might take to stage an opera that kept most of the book.

What remains is an tense, exciting story that focuses on the hubris and tragedy of a highly skilled, highly flawed, all-too-human failure of a single man who tries to defeat the all-powerful symbol of all that is evil but loses his soul and his crew in this final confrontation. And that’s the kind of bigger-than-life tale upon which the best of grand operas are usually based.

The Music

Perhaps the most striking thing in this opera, however, is Jake Heggie’s score. The composer chooses, quite dramatically we think, to toss the 20th century’s obsession with atonality (or serialism) overboard into a well-deserved watery grave of its own. Mr. Heggie isn’t the first contemporary composer to do this. But this may be the latest and best example of a composition that’s more geared toward attracting an audience than it is toward winning academic accolades and prizes before it’s quickly tossed on the dust heap of musical history.

Mr. Heggie’s compositional style here, as we’ve already noted, is to some extent as indebted to Britten’s modernism as it is to the late Verdi’s verismo style that focuses more on the sung dialogue and line than on creating opportunities for showy arias. Musical motifs and narrative lines predominate, and everything that is sung, in the main, carries the plot forward with surprising vigor and speed.

Mr. Heggie’s music is also indebted to Broadway tradition in a minor way and to symphonic film scores in a major way. This critic has argued more than once that much of America’s valuable classical music actually went underground in the latter half of the 20th century, finding its way into the brilliant film scores of expat European composers Erich Korngold and Miklós Rózsa and, more recently, into the inspired, evocative film scores of John Williams.

While his musical voice is original, Mr. Heggie is nonetheless comfortable operating in this underappreciated American tradition. Thus, his score sounds fresh and new but at the same time has a vague yet comfortable familiarity and accessibility to it.

Furthermore, the best symphonic film music underlies rather than dominates the dramatic line. It creates precisely the same kind of relationship between the orchestral score and the vocal line that distinguishes grand opera from more popular musical stage works like operettas and popular Broadway or stage shows. Mr. Heggie recognizes this, embraces it and runs with it, creating the kind of music and musical characters that audiences will want to hear and see.

The Direction

As with the previous performances of “Moby-Dick,” this production is under the direction of its original director, Leonard Foglia who was also in on the planning and execution of the opera early in its gestation.

When one gets a good look at the complex and tangled sails and rigging of this production, one can greatly appreciate what it must have taken for Mr. Foglia to navigate his cast and crew to and fro on the Pequod’s deck without a mishap. That he has accomplished, however, and the entire cast actually takes on the air of accomplished seamen who know what they’re doing, adding some genuine maritime verisimilitude to the production.

The Pequod’s Cast and Crew

This production’s primary, nearly all-male cast also knows how to navigate some challenging musical shoals. Key among them is hometown-boy-made-good, Arlington Virginia-born tenor Carl Tanner who creates a steely, determined Captain Ahab. Mr. Tanner’s Ahab is humorless and driven, but shows some recognition and remorse prior to the final battle, demonstrating at last that a human soul still resides inside this troubled captain—a key realization that drives all classic tragedies.

Mr. Tanner’s clear, powerful tenor also gives him a dark majesty and authority, key to a tragedy in which an entire, mesmerized crew chooses to join him in his final, doomed voyage.

Tenor Stephen Costello, who sings “Greenhorn,” later revealed to be Melville’s narrator Ishmael, is, in key ways, Ahab’s opposite. This is his first voyage. Young, somewhat naïve, yet an honest man in his own right, Mr. Costello’s Greenhorn not only narrates the tale but brings his own views on the action to the fore, exploring and evaluating the action not only for himself but for the audience.

Clockwise from top: Alexander Lewis as Flask, Eric Greene as Queequeg, Talise Trevigne as Pip, and Christian Bowers as Stubb.(Credit: Scott Suchman)
Clockwise from top: Alexander Lewis as Flask, Eric Greene as Queequeg, Talise Trevigne as Pip, and Christian Bowers as Stubb.(Credit: Scott Suchman)

In the process, Mr. Costello, like Mr. Tanner, gets some of the better vocal moments in the opera, and, like Mr. Tanner, executes them convincingly and well. It will be good to get a chance to hear him again this season in a lighter role when he returns for WNO’s production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) later this season.

As first mate Starbuck (and yes, the name inspired the current ubiquitous coffee chain), baritone Matthew Worth functions as the lone voice of reason as he attempts to temper Ahab’s—and the crew’s—headlong pursuit of disaster.

Although the opera doesn’t make it clear, Melville’s Starbuck is a practicing Quaker, a practical and empathetic man driven by equal doses of piety, morality and pacifism. All of this pits him, albeit reluctantly, against the captain, while at the same making him feel compelled to save the crew from Ahab’s excess.

All of this makes Starbuck something of a stiff character, but he’s the necessary opposing force in the plot. Mr. Worth’s bell clear baritone instrument is somehow able to articulate his characters complexity as his Starbuck wars within himself in a desperate attempt to carry out his sworn duty to his captain while remaining true to himself and his men. It’s a marvelous, upstanding performance.

Closer to Greenhorn is the enigmatic Queequeg, a massively-tattooed South Sea Island harpooner who also serves as Greenhorn’s mentor and friend. In terms of the opera, Queequeg serves the purpose of articulating an exotic, pagan religious philosophy that ultimately helps Greenhorn deal with the oncoming tragedy of the Pequod.

The rich, profound baritone of Eric Green melds perfectly with Queequeg’s character, giving him the kind of quiet moral authority that often seems to elude the more rigid Starbuck.

Like Britten’s “Billy Budd,” also based on a Melville novel, the operatic “Moby-Dick” is, given its 19th century nautical situation, an unusual work in this genre in that it consists only of male characters. Britten didn’t have an issue with this. Mr. Heggie, on the other hand, wanted to vary his vocal mix a bit more. His happy solution to the problem was to fall back to the operatic tradition of the “trouser role” in which a female singer fills the part of a boy or male teen.

The conceit perfectly fits the role of Pip, the captain’s young cabin boy, ably and gratifyingly sung in this production by soprano Talise Trevigne. As fine an actress as she is a singer, Ms. Trevigne beautifully navigates the transformation of her initially innocent character into a haunted and fearful prophet of doom. She also adds a perfect vocal touch to some of the ensemble moments in the opera, helping create a richer blend in this work than Britten was able to achieve with “Billy Budd’s” all-male cast.

In addition to the primary cast, WNO’s large all-male chorus of harpooners, ship’s officers and assorted deckhands sings clearly, enthusiastically, and harmoniously in this production. It’s one of the better choral performances we’ve heard in quite some time, notable for fine diction and crisp entrances. Kudos to all.

Musical Direction

In his first appearance in the pit of a WNO production, conductor Evan Rogister turns in a sterling turn at the helm, keeping the orchestra calibrated and on target and carefully molding the ebb and flow of the vocal and instrumental lines, creating a near perfect musical blend as he navigates Mr. Heggie’s sparkling score.

Highly Recommended

In the end, about the only fault we could find with this wonderfully fresh, new and accessible American opera were a few trite—but only occasional—passages in the music that seemed a bit clichéd. That said, some of Bizet’s music for his immortal “Carmen” gets the same rap sometimes. Perhaps one shouldn’t expect 100 percent perfection in a nearly three-hour musical epic, so perhaps we’re being a bit churlish here.

WNO’s production of Heggie’s and Scheer’s outstanding “Moby-Dick” fires on all cylinders. It’s visually lavish, musically rich and satisfying, and also does amazingly well as a musical theater piece with its careful articulation of character and a tragic story line that drives ahead with relentlessness and remorselessness. It’s as fine an evening of opera and musical theater as DC is likely to see this season.

We sincerely hope than many more audiences in the coming years will get a chance to see what a real contemporary American opera can achieve.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

The Washington National Opera’s production of “Moby-Dick” continues its limited run here through March 8, 2014.

Tickets: $30-350.

For tickets and information, visit WNO online on the Kennedy Center website. Alternatively, call the box office at 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

Also note: WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz young artists appear in recital in the Opera House Thursday, February 27, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are just $15. Joining the current roster of young singers will be distinguished former members Keri Alkema and Javier Arrey. Tickets and info as above.

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