Massive. Emotionally wrenching. Magnificent. On Saturday night, at the east coast premiere of Moby-Dick, the Washington National Opera audience sighted the breaching of a great American opera.
But how do you take on Herman Melville’s weighty tome of nine-hundred pages with its roaming geography, detailed nautical narrative, and complexity of character? Were the opera’s creators as mad as old captain Ahab, going up against so behemoth a monster? And, pardon, but I overheard that some wondered whether the whale might be sung by a big-sized bass and remembered I’d had asked myself months ago, “How on earth were they going to manage “the fish?”
Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer had charted their course at the beginning. They would find a way to tell the whole story at sea. The role of cabin-boy Pip would be played by a female in a pants role, and Captain Ahab would be played by a heroic tenor.
As Pip, soprano Talise Trevigne opened up the whole top register, creating a luster that soared above the male chorus. It was clear in her every moment that the role of Pip had been written for her she carries it with such assurance. With her mop of brown curls and barefoot, she flew across the stage as if her only world were this ship – dancing and banging her tambourine with the sailors, throwing her whole weight against ropes, scampering up a mast, and “swimming” in ocean swells singing an eerie, difficult aria all the while – a technical stage feat no less magical visually for its having been done before. Pip’s descent to madness allowed the singer to become as vulnerable as any Ophelia. Some people might have asked, “What’s all this Pip?” in the show, but actually her journey was so mesmerizing I might have called for more, but I will settle, saying, like Goldilocks ,that this element seemed “just right.”
Most singers inhabited their roles fully, and the physicality of this production showed that an American opera should and could have real muscle.
Stephen Costello was a standout, who, like Trevigne, had debuted with the show at its first opening in Dallas in 2010 then traveled the following year to perform the role in San Francisco. As Greenhorn, he seemed to live inside this opera, fearlessly heading up the masts then throwing himself onto the ship’s deck or later sitting on the cabin floor with his friend Queequeg. Costello’s voice is gorgeous, filled with the aching emotion of a Puccini romantic tenor. He carries all our sympathies as the modern “outsider” searching the world for his identity, friendship, and a way to belong.
The character of Queequeg in the hands of Eric Greene embodies the soul of this opera. He is Greenhorn’s teacher, spiritual guide, and friend. His deep rich voice is featured throughout, including in an authentic island chant, “Fune ala” and a beautiful duet with Costello, staged brilliantly by director Leonard Foglia, atop two different masts, in a scene that carried all the tension and hopes embodying two cultures worlds apart but carrying a vision and longing to reach out to come together. His Queequeg grows in dramatic stature as the man who risks all and then finally faces his heart’s life flowing away “ to where ocean touches heaven.”
At the center of this work is Ahab, a character who inspired Heggie and Scheer to create a truly great stage role that will surely remain in the operatic canon. Carl Tanner came new to this production at the Kennedy Center, but his voice has the stamina and the intensity to fill this iconic figure. Tanner’s big heroic tenor sound convinced us he was a natural leader of his men who were ready to fight any enemy and would follow him on the damned Pequod to the end.
Tanner made such unerring choices throughout that I suspect he went even beyond the creators’ original concept. Tanner’s glittering eyes and set jaw showed that at times the man whose sanity had been overthrown in his vengeful quest to harpoon his whale; at other times, his humanity broke through. In his duet with Matthew Worth as Starbuck, remembering the life and families they left at home in Nantucket, they wrested stirring emotion and complementary musicality.
When with Pip, Tanner finally saw the boy in full breakdown, he firmly yet gently dealt with the lad, and seemed to understand that the boy’s pain was also his. This singer-actor also pushed the characterization in a dark direction, making me believe, at times, that he was living in an infernal fire and was hell-bent for evil.
The chorus and supernumeraries, numbering fifty-seven, added so much to this work, in the athleticism of climbing masts, pulling on ropes, diving and sliding down the “half-pipe” of the set as if falling overboard into the projected ocean. At no other time have I seen the Opera House stage filled from stage floor to top of the proscenium. Foglia directed a powerful vision, and Evan Rogister conducted terrifically to marry the rich sound of the hefty male chorus with the orchestra to achieve fulsome dynamics.
The design team created something so complementary and powerful in their collaboration that everything on stage supported and expanded on Ahab’s internal fiery cauldron. Set designer Robert Brill managed with his half “half-pipe,” floor-to-ceiling wall both the inner hull of the a whaling ship and, with the remarkable Elaine J. McCarthy’s animated projections, a rich surface for the celestial night for astronomical charting, skeletons of massive whalers, and the brilliant harpoon “fleet” of three as if seen down from above.
Movement director/choreographer Keturah Stickann then created more magic by having people cling, then fling themselves out from the vertically-viewed boats as if overboard into the water of a tempestuous sea. When Brill’s great hull later opened to reveal another deck with men rendering whale fat, lighting designer Gavan Swift washed the whole scene in a smoky red glow, creating the cauldron from hell. Star costumer Jane Greenwood dressed the cast with a somber, unified look.
But let’s face it, in a new opera, it comes down to the music and the words, and, in this case, both are astonishingly good. At times, the melodic line soars and builds like a Puccini aria. At other times, the driving pulse reminds me of certain contemporary works like the very best moments in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic.
Heggie makes time for beautiful orchestral passages, including the overture, often dropped in contemporary works, and often lets us linger, bathed in a magical world of music. Heggie also beguiles us with a variety of tuneful vernacular music including sea chants, folk tunes, driving percussive drumming, and complex rhythmic duets that shift to trios and even a quartet but always coming back to that deep male choric sound like bellows. He has found a musical structure where all holds together, and into this Heggie almost uncannily drops in orchestral translations to create the reality of a ship’s bell, the eerie sound of a whale blowing, and the roiling stormy sea.
As for librettist Scheer, he has negotiated the tricky course between the horrific contemporary Charybdis and Scylla of English-language operatic libretti: “pass-the-butter” mundanity vs. raging melodrama. He has created poetry that has stature and yet is grounded in the vernacular, is irregular in scansion but sounds satisfying musically and emotionally full. Together, these two artists have created a work that shifts like the ocean but drives forward dramatically, even inexorably like its great whaling ship.
It’s hard to mention flaws in such a production as this. The first act was a searing whole, as mesmerizing visually as in its language and music. Occasionally, in the second act, I felt some fragmentation of scenes that were used to wrap up the pieces of the story. I also felt in certain scenes a lack of adequate sound size and physical tension as in Starbuck’s confrontation with Ahab in his cabin. At least on opening night, I didn’t see in Worth’s body that key dramatic inner conflict when he raised a gun on his captain and contemplated as to whether a murderer taking out a would-be murderer would save the lives on the Pequod or be deemed a sinner.
Alexander Lewis and Christian Bowers as the Flask and Stubb duo sang well but hadn’t yet filled the barnacle humor of these two sailors. I was also sad that Norman Garrett’s fine singing as Captain Gardiner was limited to an offstage voice as I am very fond of this singer-actor.
Closes March 8, 2014
3 hours, including 1 intermission
Presented by Washington National Opera
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Tickets: $25 – $305
Details and Tickets
Nonetheless, the proof was both at intermission where the “buzz” was high and at the end with the final exquisite image. You could feel that palpable reverent hush. Then suddenly the hall exploded. You get standing ovations at the Kennedy Center, but sometimes it’s a staggered scramble, sometimes you can feel even a begrudging bow to tradition. Saturday night, people leapt to their feet as one unanimous mass and shouted out bravos.
Apparently, Heggie and Scheer had two goals with this opera: to create a theatrical unity that would hold people’s attention whether one knew the original Moby-Dick or not and “to earn” possibly the most famous line in American literature. Transposing the first line of the novel gave the creators freedom to roam and juxtapose, conflate events, and tell the story freshly and theatrically.
The entire team more than met these goals. They’ve managed to express the marrow of the matter in word as well as music. I’d like to tell them, “You earned the line, guys.”
To theatre and opera lovers alike, this is a must see theatrical experience. You too will get “lost in the heart of the sea.” The show will close March 8, and there are only five sightings left.
Moby-Dick . Music by Jake Heggie . Libretto by Gene Scheer . Based on the novel by Herman Melville . Directed by Leonard Foglia . Conducted by Evan Rogister . Production co-owned by The Dallas Opera, State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera, San Diego Opera, and San Francisco Opera . Featuring Carl Tanner, Stephen Costello, Matthew Worth, Eric Greene, Talise Trevigne and Alexander Lewis . Set Designer: Robert Brill . Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood . Lighting Designer: Gavan Swift, based on an original design by Donald Holder . Projection Designer: Elaine McCarthy . Movement Director and Choreographer: Keturah Stickann . Presented by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.