WNO’s ‘Moby-Dick’: Inventive American Triumph

If you can imagine the Washington National Opera as a Nantucket whaling company, then you can congratulate it for finally landing the great white whale of contemporary opera: composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Gene Scheer’s “Moby-Dick,” now at the Kennedy Center through March 8.

Unlike mad and fiery Captain Ahab’s doomed, mad expedition to destroy the white whale, the opera, making its long-awaited East Coast debut, doesn’t end in disaster. It is an invigorating, emotionally powerful, poetic and visually astonishing triumph. The production is fueled emotionally by Heggie’s accessible and richly varied music and Scheer’s poetic libretto, which echoes the novel’s style and 19th-century American poetics.

While an entirely operatic opera with all the elements in the operatic toolbox, “Moby-Dick” is also a very American opera. It’s almost a spiritual and emotional anthem to the era’s literary strivings. This isn’t just a question of language—the opera is written and sung in English—but one of style and themes. Throughout the nearly three-hour course of the opera, you hear (and see) the strains of what Walt Whitman heard, you hear American voices, transcendental strivings and New England religious and biblical tones, the salty, dangerous and lonely lives of whalers alone on the ocean.

The opera doesn’t arrive newly minted. It was first commissioned for the Dallas Opera—jointly with the San Francisco Opera, the San Diego Opera, the State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera—and had its world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010. The San Francisco Opera production was staged in 2012. For Washingtonians who had not seen the production, it existed as a kind of much-talked-about and much-written-about rumor.

To begin with, all the stories about the physical and technical aspects of the production are true: on stage, “Moby-Dick” is a spectacle of projection, lighting and a physical apparition which is both highly complicated and affecting. It’s sailors on ropes, decks and shadows, in whaling boats seemingly bobbing in fierce storms on high seas, sets that sometime dwarf the characters like the shadow of a giant white whale. The wizards who helped re-recreate the physical presence of the whaling ship Pequod include Robert Brill (set design), Jane Greenwood (costumes), Gavan Smith (lights) and Elaine J. McCarthy (projection design). It’s McCarthy we presume who’s responsible for the magical projection that hooks stars and ship together in the opening sequence.

But, as somebody once quipped, you shouldn’t come out humming the sets or the lights, however impressive. Opera is about music, words and music, singers and singing and, in many cases, fevered drama. As literature, “Moby-Dick” is nothing, if not operatic, dealing with obsession, man’s place in the cosmos, and relationship to the almighty, not to mention being a tragic adventure fully muscled with the brawn of an emerging America.

After all, this is about Captain Ahab, the one-legged leader of the Pequod, and his pursuit of the white whale Moby-Dick, who stole his leg from him. It’s about Starbuck, the reasonable and moral first mate, Queegqueg, the island harpooner, the cabin boy Pip and the sailors like Flask and Stubb, and the newcomer and sometime narrator of the tale dubbed the “greenhorn,” otherwise known as Ishmael, alone on the vast ocean, far from Nantucket.

This production is an intimate marriage of music and libretto. It brings out, if perhaps not all the essential details of Melville’s massive masterpiece, the key elements of the heart of the book. Heggie has become something of a master of the contemporary opera musical narrative form. He is the composer of “Dead Man Walking,” which has become a staple and received 40 productions as well as “Out of Darkness”, a trio of Holocaust stories. The music is remarkably varied. It’s a kind of ship of treasures itself, often wandering into pure songs, intimate duets between “greenhorn” and Queegeg, and Abab and Starbuck or arias (notably Ahab’s and the “greenhorn”). With echoing sea shanties or bursting like a wave, there’s no sameness in this music. This is a little remarkable given that all the action takes place on a single ship.

Just as critical is Gene Scheer’s libretto. Noted American playwright Terence McNally, who had the initial impulse to make an opera out of “Moby-Dick,” was originally slated to do the libretto but bowed out because of illness. Scheer, who has worked with Heggie on other projects, instead took over and produced a libretto that more than complements the music. It’s a marriage. Scheer finds the style and words of the characters and the time and the book, you can, as Whitman did, hear America singing, along with the Puritans and bible thumpers as well as strong-armed, brave and rum-loving sailors.

From the beginning imagery, the production moves from spectacle to wonder, to intimate scenes, buoyed by strong singing and believable, often touching acting. Two of the performers—the young American tenor Stephen Costello as the “greenhorn” (aka Ishmael), and American soprano Talise Trevine in the pants part of Pip were in the Dallas and San Francisco productions. They anchor the production: Costello with a clear, rangy, heart-touching voice, commanding without being pushy, especially in the aria “Human Madness,” accompanied only by an oboe. The greenhorn’s relationship with the Pacific whaler Queegeg is touching, as they cement their friendship and the greenhorn sings about learning the other’s language.

This is one of the strengths of the production—the surge from spectacle to intimacy. There are times when the overpowering sets tend to diminish the characters on stage. It’s a fine line to walk. That whole idea of man in the face of impossibly large forces is a thematic content after all. I would have like to see a little more charisma and force from tenor Carl Tanner’s Ahab when he’s singing out of a crowd, but he’s very affecting in his scenes with the stoic, pragmatic Starbuck (baritone Matthew Worth).

On the whole, guided with imagination by director Leonard Foglia and conducted with energy by Evan Rogister, “Moby-Dick” is an engaging American opera. It is something we’ve seen rarely here, an epic American experience, and a lodestone of inventiveness in almost all of its aspects. It ends—as it should—with the right words, the right tone, the right image, just so.

“Moby-Dick” is playing at the Kennedy Center’s opera house through March 8.

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