Dramatically flat but musically absorbing, Heggie’s opera harpoons “Moby Dick”
When it comes to American composers looking for opera subjects, no work of literature is too sacrosanct. That much is clear from Jake Heggie’s decision to make an opera out of Moby Dick, a classic as revered as it is intimidating. The widely anticipated premiere took place Friday night, presented by The Dallas Opera.
Measuring a new opera against its source is no way to judge—ultimately, it stands or falls on its own merits. But you have to wonder what attracted Heggie to Herman Melville’s novel.
It cannot have been the writer’s discursive prose or substantial digressions—these have no place in Gene Scheer’s fluent and ably structured libretto. Perhaps it was the characters, in particular Captain Ahab and his fixation on avenging his missing leg by hunting down and killing the aggressor, the great white whale Moby Dick. Then again, it may have been primarily the plot.
Scheer’s distillation of the action, in combination with Heggie’s musically lush, confidently written, aptly proportioned and forthrightly tonal score, makes for an absorbing night at the opera. In many new operas music takes a subordinate role, working to advance the drama but never really asserting itself. Yet from the opening of Moby Dick with its undulating string patterns depicting the sea and its punctuating ship bells, the music takes charge.
Repeated patterns like those favored by musical minimalists help generate orchestral continuity. But they never wear out their welcome, and the score offers so much else: melodies that sound like melodies, vivid atmospheric scenes and vocal writing that knows how to show off voices. It just might be that Heggie also conceived his music to function as commentary in a manner analogous to Melville’s displaced prose. There will be ample opportunity to test that theory, for Moby Dick was commissioned and produced in partnership with the San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera and State Opera of South Australia.
Yet on first hearing, Heggie seems to have set his sights not too high but too low. With his ability to capture listener interest, he could easily have gone deeper into the drama without losing his audience. By systematically avoiding wrenching dissonance, he unduly restricted his musical palette, so that the overall tone of the opera is too upbeat for the subject. Eventually, the music begins to cloy.
And while Moby Dick has few dull moments, it fails to build dramatic tension. The sameness of life aboard the Pequod is broken up only by unrelated incidents—a lost cabin boy, a fight among the crew, a storm, and so forth. Real plot development is virtually nil. Ahab announces early on that the crew’s task is to kill Moby Dick, and his men respond at once with a rousing chorus, “Death to Moby Dick!” End of discussion.
Moby Dick has nothing like the gripping drama of that other Melville-based shipboard opera, Britten’s Billy Budd, which has a real villain. In Heggie’s opera the great white whale is never seen, and when the fateful encounter with him finally comes, it packs too little punch.
The finale also falls short in Leonard Foglia’s otherwise effective staging. When the men take to the boats to attack Moby, we suddenly view them from above as they are seen within projected outlines of the boats—a clever touch. Yet no sense of a truly cataclysmic event is conveyed. Robert Brill’s sets don’t depict the hull of the Pequod; rather their labyrinth of masts and ropes convert the whole stage floor into the main deck.
Ben Heppner, in firm and ringing voice, heads the excellent cast with his powerful portrayal of Ahab. Morgan Smith gives a richly sung performance as the first mate Starbuck, the opera’s most sympathetic character because only he appreciates the peril Ahab charts for his ship. Stephen Costello’s beautiful singing of the young sailor Greenhorn’s Act 1 aria is a high point.
The vibrant soprano Talise Trevigne is a joy to hear as the cabin boy Pip, and Jonathan Lemalu is strong as Queequeg. Patrick Summers, a Heggie proponent who also has conducted the composer’s three previous operas, presided over a sumptuously played and sung performance at the premiere. The audience received the new opera rapturously.
Moby Dick runs through May 16. www.dallasopera.org; 214-443-1000.