11 March 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer – MOBY-DICK (C. Tanner, S. Costello, M. Worth, E. Greene, T. Trevigne; Washington National Opera, 8 March 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Jake Heggie's and Gene Scheer's MOBY-DICK at Washington National Opera, 2014 [Tenor Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab, center; Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera] Tenor Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab (center) in Jake Heggie's and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick at Washington National Opera, 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]

JAKE HEGGIE (b. 1961) and GENE SCHEER (b. 1958): Moby-DickC. Tanner (Captain Ahab), S. Costello (Greenhorn), M. Worth (Starbuck), E. Greene (Queequeg), T. Trevigne (Pip), C. Bowers (Stubb), A. Lewis (Flask), M. J. Minor (Daggoo), V. Ghosh (Tashtego), A. Dominguez (Nantucket sailor), A. McLaughlin (Spanish sailor), N. Garrett (Captain Gardiner); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Evan Rogister [Production by Leonard Foglia; set designs by Robert Brill; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Gavan Swift; projections by Elaine McCarthy; blocking and choreography by Keturah Stickann; Washington National Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 8 March 2014]

There are few artistic undertakings more inherently perilous than setting a monumental work of literature to music. For every success, there is a plethora of failures, and even those works deemed the most effective will fall victim to those who bemoan the loss of this scene, the elimination of that character, and real or perceived derivations from the essence of the works expanded from page to stage. Counterintuitive as it may seem, reinventing an emblematic work of fiction for the opera house—and, if there is a genuinely insightful association among composer, librettist, and source, it is a reinvention rather than a translation, as it were—is a greater challenge than creating an operatic spectacle from the ground up. Few literary leviathans could present more dangers to thoughtful musicians than Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a work that is now likely acclaimed as the definitive American novel by far more people than have ever actually read it. Disputes of the legitimacy of its prominence in the national canon notwithstanding, Moby-Dick has a deservedly revered position in the history of American literature and in the hearts of many readers. In addition to offering a compelling narrative, Melville’s novel is steeped in layers of meaning. That a composer and librettist would turn their ambitions to transporting Melville’s Pequod from the tempestuous waters of words to the even rockier seas of the operatic stage is remarkable: that the enterprise could be managed with both an abiding integrity of the resulting score as an independent work of art and faithfulness to Melville seems virtually impossible. In 2010, Dallas Opera was the first port of call for a setting of Moby-Dick that, defying the odds, not only held the stage with power rivaling that of the masterworks of the operatic past but captured the imaginations of audiences with an immediacy and ingenuity rare for an opera composed after 1950. The Moby-Dick that garnered this level of affection is the creation of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, and the opera’s East Coast première at Washington National Opera, a revival of the Leonard Foglia production that has been presented in several North American cities, confirmed that the critical appreciation and audience affection are justified—and, most importantly, that Moby-Dick is worthy of Melville and the tremendous resources dedicated to its presentation.

From a literary perspective, Mr. Scheer’s libretto is a marvel of its kind. Melville’s behemoth novel is not so much reduced as refined into a thread of dramatic truth that stretches across the frame of Moby-Dick without breaking or confining expression of the novel’s core themes. Words are used sparingly and always in the service of phrases that are rousingly intuitive but seem comfortable in the mouths of the characters who utter them. Having collaborated closely with Mr. Heggie, Mr. Scheer provided the composer with text that inspired settings that maintain the natural flow of speech, melodic lines shaped by vowels in the manner of bel canto. Above all, the confounding crux of Melville permeates the libretto without hindering the development of the opera as a work with its own goals and aesthetic nucleus. The prowess with which Mr. Heggie made from Mr. Scheer’s words a score as sweeping as the sea itself is nothing short of brilliant. This task was a leap of faith even for a composer of Mr. Heggie’s proven abilities. ‘The single greatest challenge for me,’ Mr. Heggie confides, [was] ‘finding a sound world in which all of these characters could exist and emerge organically—so that the opera is ‘of a piece’—[and] the stories and journeys coexist, develop, and co-mingle, yet each character have his own identity within that sound world. I didn’t find that until I found the character of Ahab. Once I had identified him musically, the entire piece came together with clarity.’ In fact, it is the clarity of the opera’s dramatic progression—a quality that, for all its author’s genius, is largely missing from the novel—that captures and holds attention from the first note of the score. Musically, Mr. Heggie embraced influences from a myriad of his ancestors. Considering the subject matter, whiffs of Britten’s Billy Budd and Peter Grimes on the briny air of Moby-Dick are not unexpected, but the choral episodes in Mr. Heggie’s score also nod to the ‘reform’ operas of Gluck and to Berlioz’s Les Troyens. In Ahab’s beautiful monologue in the fourth scene of Act One, the melancholic strains of Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from the final act of Puccini’s Tosca are close on the horizon, bolstering the character’s innate humanity. Mr. Heggie’s music is accessible, in terms of both tonality and lyricism, but suggesting that the composer is a populist would be an oversimplification that denies him much of the credit he deserves for creating a score that challenges musicians and audiences but also earns their endearment. It would also perpetuate the unfortunate precept that composing music that proves popular with listeners is somehow artistically contemptible. The quartet for Ahab, Starbuck, Greenhorn, and Queequeg in Act One, a piece in which the emotional foundations upon which the opera is laid are stripped bare, is as distinguished an ensemble as has been written for the operatic stage since Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The orchestral depictions of the maritime elements are predictably stirring, but the lament sung by Pip and Greenhorn over the dying Queequeg in Act Two and the opera’s finale soar on wings of lyrical intensity that all but vanished from opera with the death of Richard Strauss. Mr. Heggie cites as the principal joy of his work on Moby-Dick the transcendence of the boundaries that have separated audiences from new music in recent years. ‘The greatest reward,’ he says, [is] ‘that the vibration I felt in writing seems to resonate authentically with a broad audience; that the piece connects.’ It is not a perfect opera, Act One going on slightly longer than dramatic verisimilitude can support, but it a work of uncommon artistry and one that ‘connects’ more viscerally than many of the scores old and new that litter the world’s stages.

Visually, a production that supports the composer’s and librettist’s visions in Moby-Dick more commandingly than the staging by Leonard Foglia recreated at Kennedy Center is unimaginable. Transforming the stage into the Pequod and the specific environment it inhabits with startling vitality, the projections designed by Elaine J. McCarthy astonishingly conjure vistas of masts, rigging, tempests, and—most brilliantly—the whaleboats in which the crew ultimately perish. Blocking creates tableaux that credibly suggest the routines of a working ship, and a rewarding aspect of the performance was that every principal and chorister on stage performed with conviction which is possible only when there is complete comfort with the staging and the reasons for each action. With Evan Rogister in the pit, musical values were unfailingly admirable, the orchestra’s playing undermined only by a few suspect notes from the trumpets. On the whole, the instrumentalists played a difficult score with consummate virtuosity, and under Maestro Rogister’s baton timing and balances were ideal. Coordination between stage and pit was also impeccable, especially in the scenes in which the gentlemen of the Washington National Opera Chorus—directed by Chorus Master Steven Gathman—filled the theatre with tides of burly sound.

The denizens of the Pequod were portrayed by a crew of gifted singers, each of whom took care to create an individual character. The rôles of the Nantucket and Spanish sailors, Daggoo, and Tashtego made minimal demands on choristers Aurelio Dominguez, Andrew McLaughlin, Matthew Joseph Minor, and Vijay Ghosh, but everything required of them was done with panache. Australian tenor Andrew Lewis brought a beautiful voice and lively stage presence to his performance as Flask. These traits were also central to baritone Christian Bowers’s singing of Stubb, whose boisterous but good-hearted skylarking lightened the mood of the performance. One of the most attractively sonorous voices in the cast belonged to a singer who was never seen, Texas-born baritone Norman Garrett, whose lines as Captain Gardiner—the leader of another ship, the Rachel, whose son has been lost—resounded with authority and great beauty.

The assurance with which soprano Talise Trevigne sang Mr. Heggie’s music for the cabin boy Pip was phenomenal, her ability to place tones at the top of her range with accuracy unimpeded even by the most difficult approaches to individual notes. The originality of the dreamlike sequence in which Pip crossed the stage aloft, representative of the boy being tossed by the waves after Flask’s whaleboat capsized, benefited from the security and beauty of Ms. Trevigne’s singing, and the rapt concentration of her delivery of the lament over the ailing Queequeg was touching. Pip’s mad scene, in which Ahab is both figuratively and literally stained by the boy’s blood, drew from Ms. Trevigne strangely ethereal singing which was dramatically apt and musically ravishing. Unwavering dedication was the hallmark of Ms. Trevigne’s performance, and she enlarged Pip into a character of greater significance than he is in Melville’s novel, in which he is little more than an uncomfortable stereotype, albeit one which Melville strives to soften.

Queequeg, too, is a stereotypical figure, the gentle savage whose understanding exceeds the enlightenment of his ‘civilized’ comrades aboard the Pequod. Baritone Eric Greene, lavishing upon Mr. Heggie’s music a lusty voice, was a Queequeg whose silence was a poetic as his singing. His exchanges with Greenhorn were so welcoming and voiced with such affection that it is unlikely that anyone in the theatre failed to love him or shudder in terror when he fell from the rigging. The unpretentious dignity of Mr. Greene’s singing was as attractive as the tone itself, and this insightful young artist sang every phrase of his rôle with magnetic involvement, his account of his native island gleaming with the peace of an anticipated homecoming.

In his way as tormented as Ahab, Starbuck received a ringing, nuanced performance from baritone Matthew Worth. When all the crew of the Pequod are galvanized to share Ahab’s maniacal quest pursuit of Moby-Dick, Starbuck alone voices doubt: believing that Ahab’s single-mindedness is madness that perverts the commercial interests of the crew and controverts the will of God, Starbuck goes so far as to contemplate murder and mutiny. A glimmer of the inner agony of Ahab afforded by observation of the Captain’s tortured slumber stays the finger that trembles on the trigger. When Starbuck and Ahab sing in Act Two of the wives and children they left behind in Nantucket, there is a moment of unexpected connection between them, but it is short-lived. His well-intended and ultimately prescient contradiction thwarted, Starbuck becomes a broken man, his nobility sacrificed to a fate he is powerless to circumvent. In his first exchange with Greenhorn, the sternness that Mr. Worth conveyed quickly gave way to kindness, and the power of his attempts to persuade Ahab of his folly radiated virile dignity. Mr. Worth’s voice is a lovely instrument, and his attention to maintaining precision of pitch and clarity of diction never prevented him from filling moments of greatest dramatic stress with muscular, unmistakably exasperated tone.

Such is the singularity of Ahab’s obsession that it seems that it must either be madness or genius, and one way in which Mr. Heggie’s and Mr. Scheer’s work succeeds most intelligently is in the opera’s depiction of the manner in which the distinctions between those states are undiscernibly blurred. In the performance of Ahab by tenor Carl Tanner, the distinctions between lyricism and brute strength were also reduced by a display of visionary, virtuosic singing that never disappointed. Mr. Tanner’s Ahab lurked about the stage like a wounded beast seeking equally a victim upon whom to unleash his rage and a friendly hand to caress him. Especially when brandishing a harpoon, he seemed like a seagoing Wotan, the Pequod his Valhalla and his crew the doomed gods whose demise his stubborn pride hastens. There are dramatic echoes of Verdi’s Otello in Ahab’s first entrance, and Mr. Tanner rose to the occasion with the fire of a great exponent of that rôle. In lyrical passages, the poise and focus of Mr. Tanner’s singing were enjoyable, and he succeeded in making Ahab a surprisingly sympathetic man rather than an archetype. His failings were personal rather than symbolic, and the moments of repose left little doubt that he was a victim of far more than a disfiguring encounter with a whale. When given by Mr. Heggie music in which to roar, Mr. Tanner’s Ahab did so magnificently, hurling his voice into the theatre excitingly. As much as he was a man, Mr. Tanner’s Ahab was also a metaphor for the artist in an uncomprehending society. At the core, which artist is not an Ahab, a figure for whom the struggle to achieve what the soul dictates seems madness? The abiding tragedy in Mr. Tanner’s performance was that his Ahab was keenly aware of normalcy, of having a family waiting patiently for his return, but could not reconcile his perceptions of his own destiny with the reality he created. Whether he found and confronted Moby-Dick never truly mattered; nor even whether Moby-Dick existed beyond his own thoughts. Mr. Tanner’s portrait of an Ahab crippled more lastingly by his own insecurities than by a whale’s jaws was shaped by singing of restraint even in explosions of anger, and his top notes were fired like harpoons into the heaving abyss. The image of Ahab sinking into the sea, a panel in the set crushing him in darkness, was unforgettable, and Mr. Tanner’s singing ensured that every moment that preceded Ahab’s death was etched into memory with equal potency.

Francesca Cuzzoni’s Rodelinda, Isabella Colbran’s Semiramide, Giuditta Pasta’s Norma, Margaret Sheridan’s Cio-Cio San, Martha Mödl’s Isolde, Astrid Varnay’s Brünnhilde, and Maria Callas’s Tosca: these and their like are the indelible legacies that have shaped the progress of opera from Monteverdi to Stockhausen and those that, even as memories, ensure the survival of this glorious monstrosity. Through wars, through famines, through depressions and the atrocities that humanity can only inflict upon itself, opera has endured, carried upon the shoulders of these performances; these and now the Greenhorn of tenor Stephen Costello. The pervasive sorrow in Mr. Costello’s performance was centered on a poignant depiction of a young man who longs to be happy but does not know how to be. From his entrance, his Greenhorn sought acceptance, not acknowledgement, and the naturalness of his friendship with Queequeg and protectiveness of Pip were tremendously moving. In best voice, he sang fearlessly and flawlessly, ascending the heights of his rôle’s tessitura with ease and plangent tone. The boyish charm of his questioning of Queequeg about his homeland was disarming, and the understated rapture with which he sang of his desire to explore the world by Queequeg’s side was breathtaking. So, too, was the sheer beauty of the mezza voce with which he delivered his final note in the lament with Pip. The simplicity with which he sought to assume the mistaken identity of Gardiner’s missing son when the crew of the Rachel recue him highlighted his character’s yearning for a society to call his own, his cries ‘I am here, I am here’ when Captain Gardiner calls out to his son voiced with absolute honesty. When it is seen that he is not Gardiner’s son and the destruction of the Pequod is revealed, the sadness with which Mr. Costello pronounced the names of his only friends—‘all lost…and Starbuck…Flask…Stubb…Pip…Queequeg’—was heartbreaking. No, truly, it was something more individual than that: it was an expression in song of the last misfortune a man could bear. For this sweet soul, there was rejection even in salvation, and as Greenhorn was lifted to safety it seemed that survival was perhaps crueler than death among those he loved without knowing why. The opera ends as Melville’s novel begins, with the famous line, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ In Mr. Costello’s defeated but glowing singing, it was the perfect summation: thus ended the true ordeal of which Melville’s account is but a record. Vocally and dramatically, this was singing that touched immortality.

What composer, librettist, technical team, conductor, musicians, and cast achieved in this performance of Moby-Dick is what opera is meant to be: a journey. Without leaving their seats, audiences should be taken by opera along paths their feet could never travel to experiences that are unique, enriching, and, in the very best cases, ennobling. It is one thing to hear great singing, to appreciate feats of virtuosity and applaud high notes—in short, to enjoy music with the ears. This performance of Moby-Dick offered each of those opportunities, but it invited the audience to interact with people—people, not performances—on the brink of cataclysm and to contemplate whether there is any redemption worth its price. There are no better words to describe the impact of this performance than Melville’s own: ‘it is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.’

Baritone Eric Greene as Queequeg (left) and tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (right) in Jake Heggie's and Gene Scheer's MOBY-DICK at Washington National Opera [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera] Baritone Eric Greene as Queequeg (left) and tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (right) in Leonard Foglia’s production of Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick at Washington National Opera, 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]

Heartfelt thanks are extended to Mr. Heggie for his time and candor in sharing his reflections, quoted above, on the creative process that produced Moby-Dick.