‘Moby-Dick’ at Washington National Opera by Jessica Vaughan

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Board the Pequod for the East coast premier of Moby-Dick­, a new, dynamic opera from composer Jackie Heggie and his frequent collaborator, librettist Gene Scheer. Herman Melville’s classic novel makes a natural and dramatic transition to the stage in this production filled with epic arias, tense human drama, and extreme technical wizardry. The libretto is in English with English surtitles.

Director Leonard Foglia, making his WNO debut, may have found his job more that of a circus ringmaster. This is a very, very complicated production with a huge physical set by Robert Brill that includes an actual mast of a ship, in addition to a backdrop that curves up the stage, which performers climb and tumble down in key sequences. It also serves as a screen for the ingenious projections of water and wave enhanced by lighting designer Gavan Swift.

Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab (center) and the company of Moby-Dick. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.
Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab (center) and the company of Moby-Dick. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

It reminds me most of the recent opening ceremony at the Olympics with the seamless marriage of projection and actor. It felt as if we were at sea and not just sitting in a theater.

Foglia is skilled both at the big dramatic ensemble pieces like the opening “Hand Boys, Over Hand” and more serious “Lost in the Heart of the Sea” which has the entire crew scrambling over the deck including a number of supernumeraries, or actors without speaking roles, so that they can perform incredible physical feats like climbing up the rigging of the ship. Rob Hunter Rob Hunter choreographed both the knife fight and ship brawl

What makes the opera though are the two main relationships. The first is the obsessed Captain Ahab and his first mate Starbuck. That Foglia can make these quiet moments work, and indeed, stand out amidst the spectacle is a truer testament of his skill.

Carl Tanner (Captain Ahab) turns in a pitch perfect performance as this obsessed and tortured leader. Heggie wrote the part for a tenor, which is an unusual choice, but it works well. It helps that Tanner can easily out-sing the entire ensemble and orchestra. He sings out into the storm “Light Thou Leapest Out of Darkness.” When he exhorts the crew to their quest on “Infinity! Infinity!” you can’t help but believe him. The charisma is only matched by the crazy. His costume is also a work of art by Jane Greenwood, though it could not have been easy to get around on his wooden leg.

His best moments onstage though, are clashing with Starbuck (Matthew Worth), the only voice of reason on the Pequod. He has a fine baritone and their many duets are a heartbreaking joy, such as “I have a wife and son in Nantucket” and “Oh Lord What am I to Understand?”

The other main relationship of the story is between the seasoned sailor Queequeg (Eric Greene, baritone) and the greenhorn Ishmael (Stephen Costello, tenor) Queequeg opens the opera with his haunting prayer “Fune Ala, Fune Ala.” Greenhorn quickly figures out Queequeg knows what he’s talking about and sticks close, especially for the dramatic whale hunt in “Lower Away.”

Another actor that can hold her own in the crowd is soprano Talise Trevigne (Pip), the only woman in the cast in the trouser roll of a young boy, beloved by the rest of the crew. As she cries “Death to Moby-Dick” with the chorus, it adds an eerie note to the exhortation. Trevigne originated the role; Heggie had envisioned the part for her.

The two other main rolls are Flask and Stubb (Alexander Lewis and Christian Bowers), two salty sailors who speak for the crew and are happy to be out whaling. For all the seriousness of the hunt, there are quite a few good times to be had on the boat. They sing an “Ode to Whale Stake” at one point and “Oh Jolly is the Gale” in the face of a storm. Bowers is a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, the WNO’s training program, as is Norman Garrett (Captain Gardiner). Both Bowers and Gardiner fit seamlessly into this production. They are clearly on the cusp of fulfilling careers.

– (l-r) Eric Greene (Queequeg) and Stephen Costello Greenhorn (Ishmael). Photo by Scott Suchman.
– (l-r) Eric Greene (Queequeg) and Stephen Costello Greenhorn (Ishmael). Photo by Scott Suchman.

A young conductor, Evan Rogister, takes up his baton for his WNO debut in this challenging production. There are so many moving pieces to coordinate across the 17 scene changes with this very challenging score, but he succeeds wildly. The music is so very beautiful. Heggie captures the waves of the sea and the industriousness of a ship with marimbas and chimes, as well as real ship’s bells. He echoes the sea chanteys of Nantucket history, especially when the sailors sing. But the most memorable part is a pair of haunting motifs that weave around Ahab, the whale, and the dream of home. The all-male cast (except for Pip) also makes for a unique and powerful sound.

This is the most technically challenging production WNO has attempted by a long shot. It only gets away from them when they rely too heavily on the projections to do the work; sometimes the actors do not interact with the tech seamlessly, but when they do and when it all works, it is a theatrical triumph. Heggie’s previous opera Dead Man Walking has been performed over 40 times, and I have no doubt Moby-Dick is headed towards similar success. It will be very interesting to see how new productions tackle the challenge of an opera set at sea with one main character who is a whale. I won’t spoil how they finally meet with Moby-Dick; it is one of those scenes that work perfectly and the final moments of the opera are just about the most perfect ending I’ve ever seen.

WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has dedicated this season to American operatic works and this is a fitting culmination – a technically and musically superior and moving triumph.

Running Time: Three hours with one 20-minute intermission.

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Moby-Dick plays through March 8, 2014 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House-2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

LINK
An Interview with Eric Greene, Talise Trevigne, and Matthew Worth on The Opera ‘Moby-Dick’ at Washington National Opera by Teal Ruland.