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Lowering the Boats for 'Moby-Dick' @ WNO

Quarterdeck scene, Carl Tanner (Ahab) and cast, Moby-Dick, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

An asteroid some 270 meters across, observed heading into Earth's neighborhood, went missing a few days ago. Astronomers, who have enlisted all sorts of help in an attempt to locate it, have dubbed the space rock "Moby Dick," which shows that people can project all kinds of feelings and identities onto the white whale at the center of Herman Melville's novel. It is, according to one delicious statistic, the book that Americans are most likely to claim they have read, even when they haven't. The story is familiar enough, though, that audiences for Jake Heggie's recent operatic adaptation are likely to be aware of the basic plot. Anyone who has read the book, however, will know that it is probably impossible to adapt into any other medium, because it is so much more than a narrative about a whaling ship hunting down a whale. The actual confrontation with the whale is related in a small number of chapters at the very end of the book. That and a few other episodes form the entire action of the opera.

Audiences have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy Heggie's version. It is easy on the ears, due to the composer's facility and general avoidance of dissonance. The libretto, begun by Terrence McNally and completed by Gene Scheer, is mostly compact and efficient, a few longueurs aside. The production, directed by Leonard Foglia, is one of the most strikingly cinematic stagings I have ever seen, with a set evoking the deck of the Pequod (designed by Robert Brill) serving also as a screen for vivid lighting (Gavan Swift, designed by Donald Holder) and swirling projections (Elaine J. McCarthy). As much as I enjoyed the opera at first, though, it has not grown on me so much as receded in my admiration, for in terms of melodic writing, harmonic invention, or orchestration, it is not a distinguished score. Still, especially for the astounding production, it is something that all serious operaphiles should see.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO offers Heggie and Scheer’s “Moby-Dick” in visually arresting Dallas production (Washington Post, February 24)

---, Jake Heggie, composer of ‘Moby-Dick,’ chases his Ahab (Washington Post, February 15)

Robert R. Reilly, There she blows: 'Moby-Dick' in the Bay Area (Ionarts, October 26, 2012)

Joshua Kosman, 'Moby-Dick' review: A stirring triumph (San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 2012)

Mark Swed, Jake Heggie's 'Moby-Dick' at San Diego Opera (Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2012)

Steve Smith, A Role for the Roiling Sea as Ahab Hunts His Whale (New York Times, May 2, 2010)
One of the things that the adaptation loses is the centrality of the narration of the character known as Ishmael, here called Greenhorn, saving the novel's iconic opening line until the final scene. The opera really becomes about the opposition of Ahab and Starbuck, with Greenhorn, sung with ardent line by tenor Stephen Costello, who created the role, thrust somewhere into the background. (So much so that Greenhorn's scene with Queequeg's coffin in the second act felt like one of those longueurs that should have been excised from the opera.) The most effective characterization is to have Ahab as a heroic tenor, created for Ben Heppner and sung with vigor and panache here by Carl Tanner, ringing out above the male chorus in the famous scene on the quarterdeck, where Ahab wins the crew over to his cause. The character of the cabin-boy Pip, by contrast with that of Ishmael, is magnified in the opera, largely because of the decision to make him a trouser-role, sung with electrifying force by soprano Talise Trevigne. The scene where Pip is thrown overboard is visually arresting -- she is suspended on a wire over a video of surging water -- but adds little to the drama by being expanded that way.

Conductor Evan Rogister and the WNO Orchestra did not always sound quite on the same page with the singers on the stage, especially in the multi-metric sections. The cast was solid throughout, including Eric Greene's smooth, sympathetic Queequeg and Matthew Worth's earnest Starbuck (his big aria, Oh, Lord, what shall I do?, bears an uneasy resemblance to E lucevan le stelle from Puccini's Tosca), with comic relief provided by Flask (Alexander Lewis) and Stubb (Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Christian Bowers). Unfortunately, too much about the opera seems stale upon further reflection, nothing more than the cataclysm that destroys the Pequod and its crew, which is accompanied by a Bernstein-like dance rhythm that undermines the scene, a sort of Calypso music for the end of the world. Watch this production to see the possibilities for staging that are opening up, but this is not an opera I expect ever to see again.

This production continues through March 8, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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