Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Belly of the Whale

May 01, 2010

 
Ben Heppner as Capt. Ahab
Photo: Karen Almond/Dallas opera 2010

What makes a good subject for an opera these days? Is it a matter of a solid plot, great ideas, convincing characters, or some primal situation? Maybe it’s all of these. Or maybe it’s best just to start with great material like Shakespeare. American composer Jake Heggie has mined literature for opera material before, and for his latest commission, which opened on Friday in Dallas, he chose Melville’s Moby-Dick. Now on the surface this may seem like a counter-intuitive choice – Ahab and his men troll the sea for several hundred pages going on about a whale they never see, until he finally shows up spoiling the party for everyone. It’s like Godot without the comedy. And with a whale who actually shows up at the end. Heggie enlisted librettist Gene Scheer to adapt Melville's novel, famous for inspiring dread in students everywhere, for the stage. And, even though the cast stands around deck talking about a whale for two and a half hours without much else to do until he finally shows up in the last twenty minutes, the libretto is not half-bad. Scheer even works in “Call me Ishmael” in a manner that isn’t wince inducing. There have been successful operas of ideas before, and Sheer wisely stays focused on the main concepts in the events that are preserved from the novel.

The starry cast isn’t bad either with Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab, Stephen Costello as Greenhorn, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg, and a very convincing Morgan Smith as Starbuck. Heppner rages at Ahab’s personal demons and manages to do all of this on a pegleg for three hours, which cannot be comfortable if you ask me. He still has remarkable vocal power and though he may not be remembered for this role, it does seem to fit him well. Both Costello and Smith give big heartfelt performances as young men caught up in Ahab’s madness. There’s also a pants-role for the young boy on the Pequod, Pip, sung with real sweetness by Talise Trevigne. All of this takes place on a clever single set designed by Robert Brill under the direction of Leonard Foglia. A single white, planked wall rises on a curve from the stage floor acting as boat deck and a large surface for projected video used for scenery throughout. Some of this is quite clever, as when the sailors board smaller boats for hunting by climbing in groups onto three foothold-filled areas in the wall as the boats are projected around them. There is also a large central platform that opens from the wall used in perhaps the most convincing stage representation of whale fat rendering I’ve ever seen. Granted there's not much competition, but it is what it is. A number of scrims stand in for sails and there are ropes and rigging galore for the cast to climb.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, is Heggie’s music. It can be lyrical at times, but it is unwaveringly the same throughout, regardless of the emotional or narrative content of scenes. It is often two-dimensional and misses opportunities to communicate directly to the audience at nearly every turn. It sometimes felt that you could swap out the music for any scene with any other scene and one would hardly know the difference. Oh, there is the predictable storm music, and the speed picks up a bit when the whale arrives, but there is little in the music that would ever suggest the sea. Moby-Dick has water, water everywhere, but not a drop to hear. Things bubble along and occasionally there are some lovely arias, including two for Costello's Greenhorn and a nice duet between Ahab and Starbuck in Act II, but while there is warmth, things never really ignite into an actual emotional reaction to what’s happening on stage. And while it is completely unfair, the choice of source material and setting make unfavorable comparisons to Britten's Billy Budd almost unavoidable. We’ve been here before, and it sounded better last time.

Still, it is undeniable that Moby-Dick may be one sea creature with some legs. The opera is a co-production with San Francisco and San Diego Opera and will turn up at both houses in the not too distant future. Furthermore, while Heggie may not share the highest artistic reputation, his operas are some of the most produced of any living composer. If Moby-Dick does half as well as Dead Man Walking, it will still out perform just about any opera composed in the last 30 years. So who’s to say? The crowd which was far from capacity on Friday gave the biggest ovation to Heggie and Scheer as they took the stage, so it would appear somebody can’t get enough of it. How big that club’s membership is will be seen in time. Moby-Dick runs in Dallas through May 16.

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Comments:

Brian,

The things you will do for your devoted readers is impressive. Traveling to Dallas for the premiere of a Jake Heggie opera? I can't imagine it and only hope there was something else nearby worth attending. Btw, how is the house?
At Out West Arts, I'm all about customer service. The house it's pretty cool and modern but you wonder if it will look as awful as Houston's in 20 years. Maybe I'll write more about this later.
The Winspear is gorgeous and sounds pretty darn good, but sightlines from the sides are less than great (unless seeing 60-70% of the stage is enough for you). Also, ingress and egress are rather funnel-like, and the "grand staircase" needs to be twice as wide as it is. Would not want to be in that building if a fire broke out!

I was more impressed with Heggie's music than Out West Arts, however!
I was in the back of the Winspear for Moby Dick and thought the acoustics were really quite good. I got good reverb off the side walls for the orchestra, but not so much that the singers were obscured. It was quite intimate sounding for a large hall. I had little trouble seeing the action, but some that were under the overhang had to crouch down to see the supertitles. Other than that, I thought the hall was super.

I too thought the music was stunning. Emotional and beautiful, always very interesting, with fascinating repeating themes and motifs that were recognizable and made for great coherency to tie the work together. So much of contemporary opera can be disjointed, distracting, and ultimately hard to listen too-- not so with Heggie's Moby Dick. The librettist also did a great job of condensing a big novel into a coherent story. Highly recommended.
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