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A Second Sighting: Moby-Dick at the Washington National Opera

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

This month, composer Jake Heggie’s opera, Moby-Dick, received its East Coast premiere with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I caught the second performance on the evening of February 25, 2014. I had seen the opera in San Francisco in October, 2012, and I was anxious to see if my initial impressions (review here) would survive a second exposure. I will not repeat my initial review and leave it to the interested reader to go to the link to see my full take on the work.

I found that the opera held up very well, indeed. It is every bit as dramatically compelling as I had remembered. The theatrical effects could not engage my attention as fully as they had the first time around, but this allowed me to focus more on Heggie’s score. It is a thematically coherent piece of work, with well-marked out themes and characterizations. Its impressionistic evocations of the myriad moods of the sea are very fine. Heggie also sets Melville’s Shakespearean language with great dexterity. His vocal and choral writing is very effective. I’m still not sure how memorable this music is, but I did enjoy it more on this outing. My only reservation, which remains from my first impression, is that one of Heggie’s main themes skirts the vernacular of the American musical a little too closely for my comfort.

available at Amazon
J.Heggie / G.Scheer, Moby Dick,
P.Summers / San Francisco Opera
J.H.Morris, S.Costello, M.Smith et al.
L.Foglia (Director)
EuroArts DVD

I was struck again by the metaphysical ferocity of Melville’s work, which Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer deserve so much credit for capturing. In the opera, Ahab’s first words are “Infinity, infinity, we shall harvest infinity.” We are, then, on a metaphysical voyage. The drama revolves around the question of free will and fate, and whether the universe is based upon providential reason or sheer, brute will, indifferent to man. As if he were in a medieval debate at the University of Paris, Ahab asks, “Is it God, or I, or who, who lifts this arm?” The subject of metaphysics often produces somnolence in the college classroom; so it is some measure of this work’s success that it makes metaphysics literally a life or death proposition. “Where’s God?” desperately sings Starbuck. He knows his life—or even more importantly, his soul—depends on the answer.

On my second encounter, I am even more persuaded that this opera convincingly captures the titanic figure of Ahab in all his metaphysical madness. He is pure Nietzschean will to power: “What I dared, I’ve willed, and what I’ve willed, I’ll do,” he proclaims. He has the Miltonian stature of Lucifer. Ahab not only declares, “non serviam,” but launches a counterattack against God to strike at his seeming indifference. “I am darkness leaping out of light,” sings Ahab. It doesn’t get much darker than that.

To keep Ahab from becoming a caricature, he must also be given a human dimension. This is most poignantly conveyed by the second act scene in which Ahab and Starbuck reminisce about Nantucket and their respective families. This is the moment in which Ahab considers leaving his mad endeavor. Because of the purpose it serves, this is one of the most important scenes in the opera. It adds an indispensable psychological complexity and invests the cold metaphysics with warm humanity. Even more so than the first time I saw it, I think this scene is one of the opera’s finest achievements.

How does the WNO cast compare with the San Francisco Opera production? In the case of Ishmael and Pip, very well indeed, for the simple reason that tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Talise Trevegne reprised their respective roles. I was, however, even more impressed by Costello in this performance and took far more note of him than I had in San Francisco. Trevegne could not have been better in either performance.

Of course, a great deal hinges on Ahab. In San Francisco, Jay Hunter Morris gave a superb portrayal. In Washington, Carl Tanner was equally fine. In fact, I prefer Tanner in the role because the quality of his tenor voice seemed to me to have more weight—a quality that left me less confused as to why Heggie should have made Ahab a tenor in the first place. An announcement was made before the performance that Tanner was suffering from a bad cold, but had decided to go on despite it. He sang so well that I could only wonder how well he would sing without a cold. His voice never flagged. Baritone Matthew Worth made a fine Starbuck. Eric Greene looked as if he had been sent by Central Casting to play Queequeg, and his singing was a perfect match in his duets with Costello’s Ishmael.

As in San Francisco, the production was theatrically arresting and graphically thrilling. Conductor Evan Rogister, making his WNO debut, and the Washington National Opera Orchestra captured all the intricacies of Haggie’s score in a highly transparent manner that might have benefited from a touch more subtlety.

If you did not make it to the Kennedy Center, you can get a very good impression of this work from the excellent DVD of the San Francisco Opera production produced by EuroArts. If you play it on a large screen, you may even be able to experience some of the theatrical impact. I would like to add that Moby-Dick has a broad age-range appeal. My 16-year-old daughter, who accompanied me, liked it very much. When I played the DVD at home, two of my other children—ages nine and 14—gathered on their own to view it, were immediately engaged, and did not move for extended periods of time.

Bernard Herrmann chose to write a cantata on Moby-Dick rather than an opera because, he thought, “the medium of opera seems too limited.” Heggie’s work and this imaginative production prove otherwise.

The production still runs twice more, on March 5th and 8th

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