You are watching a brand-new opera for the first time, in its first run, thoroughly taken by the piece, the performers, the production. And at the same time, you see, as through a mist, the outlines of possible future realizations by different artists, proceeding on other assumptions. How often does this happen?
In a word, never. Sad but true. In circumstances like these, one's first impression is apt to be one's last word. Not so with Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, written to a libretto by Gene Scheer after the novel by Herman Melville, at the Dallas Opera in its inaugural season at the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House.
Scheer's stage direction for the prelude specifies, "A starry night, a few hours before dawn. Ahab stands on the deck of the Pequod. He is very still as he stares at the ocean and the sky. Everything seems to be revolving and turning: stars, planets, the world." The director Leonard Foglia and his design team—Robert Brill, scenery; Donald Holder, lighting; Elaine McCarthy, projections—follow the first and last sentence to the letter but ignore the rest, orbiting in on the Pequod from an infinite distance. The ship takes shape like a constellation, star connecting to star in lines of light traced on darkness by some celestial draughtsman's hand.
As the action begins, the harpooner Queequeg, cannibal prince of the South Sea Islands, is chanting to a tiny idol, ignoring the protests of the character known to readers of Melville as Ishmael, the narrator, who is trying to sleep. Here Ishmael goes by the name Greenhorn, and he no longer narrates. (No problem there. This is theater.) The opera further departs from the novel in having Greenhorn bond with Queequeg onboard the Pequod rather than as his chance bedfellow in a New Bedford rooming house. Thus composer and librettist serve notice from the start that they will be telling the story their own way. And so they should.
Though Foglia keeps Ahab out of sight until he can give him a more impressive entrance, the thump of his wooden leg on the deck above (notated in the score) signals his presence from the opening notes of Queequeg's invocations. As in the book, Ahab has lost his leg to a great white whale at their first encounter, and his deranged quest for revenge drives the action. For the sake of his revenge, Ahab abandons the commercial purpose of the voyage, sacrificing the livelihoods and ultimately the lives of his crew.
Only Starbuck, the first mate, has the position or personal authority to stop him; but conscience trips him up when he has his best chance. The other relationship explored in depth is that of Queequeg, the noble savage wandering the globe, proud and self-sufficient, and Greenhorn, the alienated self-exile of industrialized America. A crisis comes when Queequeg suddenly takes sick and the distraught Greenhorn abandons his post to care for him. In a show of cold bravado, Ahab mounts the mast to look out for Moby-Dick. (Sure enough, he spots him, though not until some scenes later.)
The score is studded with vivid scenes in many modes: the nailing of the doubloon to the mast as a reward for the man who sights Moby-Dick, the ceremony of the harpoons (shades of Götterdämmerung), the impromptu ballroom shenanigans of the sailors (shades of La Bohème), Ahab's showdown with Starbuck, a tenderly fraternal duet for Greenhorn and Queequeg on the masts, a spacewalk through the rolling waters for Pip, the cabin boy with prophetic visions. (Pip is written for an adult soprano, the lone woman's voice in the score.) Though peripheral, the entreaties of Gardiner, the captain of another whaler, vainly scanning the waves for his lost son, strike a note of bleak beauty. Ahab has a whole portfolio of commanding scenes, on his own, with Starbuck, and with the crew. Even allowing for the agony of wearing that strapped-on peg leg, this is surely a role that powerhouse tenors will be fighting for. (Tailored to Heppner's strengths, it tops out at B-flat.)
But the distinction of Moby-Dick lies less in its parts than in the whole. Though the action is episodic, the libretto holds to a taut arc. The score holds together, too, shaped by the gravitational pull of the tides, ever-changing in the music yet ever-present. Ribbons of silken melody, played by solo winds and reeds, ripple high above, like wayward breezes. Pizzicati conjure up pinpricks of starlight on the waves. Under the baton of Patrick Summers, the score unfolded majestically, never rushed yet never meandering, the dramatic incidents clearly set off within the greater flow.
Heading a uniformly excellent cast, Ben Heppner conveyed Ahab's flinty soul without Gothic histrionics; a fleeting reference to a wife back on land ("rather a widow with her husband alive") contained more of bitterness than sentimentality. Elsewhere, his ringing rages and ashen introspection carried an equal conviction.
In assignments of lesser complexity, the baritone Morgan Smith (Starbuck) and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu (Queequeg) went to the hearts of their characters; so, in parts especially grateful to their spirits and their voices, did Stephen Costello as Greenhorn and Talise Trevigne, a noted Lucia di Lammermoor in her first trouser role, as Pip.
The physical production was representational without being literal. A mast, some ropes, and flat scrims with curved lower edges were all the tangible paraphernalia it took to establish the physical presence of the Pequod. For the rest, the show relied mostly on projections. Aided by outlines of whaling boats, a steeply sloping hull miraculously doubled as the ocean. Yet at times the design morphed into pure geometric abstraction. At one point, a ravaged square of red stood for the carcass of a whale. The final struggle with Moby-Dick was a churning whiteout worthy of a latter-day J. M. W. Turner. Ahab vanished into an abyss that opened like a garage door.
Be it said that Moby-Dick benefited hugely from the overall excellence of the Winspear, which deserves an essay of its own. Designed by Foster + Partners under the leadership of Spencer de Grey, the house abounds in dramatic touches: a glass skin with views of a wraparound lobby with sweeping staircases, a scarlet shell—also glass—encasing the auditorium, and within, four horseshoes faced in gilded wood carved with patterns like ripples on a swift-flowing stream. The capacity is variable, ranging from 2,200 to 2,300.
The acoustician of record is Robert Essert, of Sound Space, who has done a phenomenal job. For definition and transparency, the sheer presence of the orchestra at every dynamic is astonishing. Singers who project fare magnificently. Hazy voices have a hard time, it is true, and one peculiarity definitely takes some getting used to. Whether from the pit or from the stage, the sound travels so freely that it often seems to come from somewhere other than it where it does, for example from the rear wall.
Seen on May 13, in the fifth of six performances, Moby-Dick played in repertory with Francesca Zambello's well-traveled production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, much of which is set at the American consulate in Nagasaki. A literalist will complain that the conceit is full of holes. What American matron of the early 20th century would have countenanced the sham marriage of an eligible young Navy officer and a Japanese "bride" who is all of 15? Here, a whole ladies' auxiliary looks on blithely. Yet Zambello's theatrical craft has a metaphorical thrust of its own, turning a singular destiny into one of many, and Puccini's tragedy is not sold short.
Madama Butterfly belongs, as few other operas do, to the heroine, played in Dallas by Adina Nitescu, a capable if not incandescent professional. The standout performances came from Brandon Jovanovich as the heart-breaker B.F. Pinkerton and from the diminutive blond moppet Jack Lenhardt in the silent role of Trouble, the son Pinkerton never knew he had. Jovanovich, a heart-breaker in his own right, gave the love duet a carefree, lustrous rapture, matched in eloquence by his pathos at the end.
Revealing Trouble's existence to the American consul, Butterfly says that his name will turn to Joy when his father returns to Japan, but Zambello tells another story. Seconds before the final blackout, the boy flies in from the wings and hurls himself on the back of the stranger who kneels in anguish over Butterfly's lifeless body. For father and son, the troubles are just beginning.
Moby-Dick and Leonard Foglia's premiere production were commissioned by the Dallas Opera in cooperation with the San Francisco Opera (where the score underwent intensive workshops), the San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera, and the State Opera of South Australia. The other four companies will present the Foglia production in future seasons, perhaps with modifications. Casts and conductors will vary. Musical and dramatic revisions are a possibility, though the need seems slight. For dates and further information, visit jakeheggie.com.