One of opera’s established traditions is the adaptation of literary works: Shakespeare and Schiller plays, Goethe’s “Faust” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” That has led to a number of enduring operas, and to a lot of works that are considerably less weighty than their source material: Think Gounod’s “Faust.”
“Moby-Dick,” as adapted by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, cleaves to operatic tradition in many senses, including this one: It’s much lighter and sweeter than its craggy antecedent. When the production, based on the Herman Melville novel, came out of the starting gate in Dallas in 2010, it seemed astonishing that anyone was able to make this novel seaworthy, let alone into a polished and viable opera. Several stations later — after performances in four other cities, a DVD and considerable critical acclaim — it arrived at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night like a vessel after a long voyage, seaworn and a little less shiny, ready to show what it’s made of.
If you like traditional opera, you will probably like “Moby-Dick.” Heggie and Scheer have hewn to operatic models that work. Their opera features big tunes for full orchestra, impassioned arias and tender ensembles, and choral scenes for sailors yo-ho-hoing as they tug at ropes on the foredeck.
Rather than setting out to break any molds, “Moby-Dick” explores how much use we can still get out of the old ones. Heggie’s weaves together his references — which include (audibly) Britten and Puccini — in a colorful, singable score that has its own undeniable unity and through-line. In an operatic landscape crowded with various noteworthy reinventions of the wheel that have not managed to travel very far, “Moby-Dick” is eminently driveable.
That “Moby-Dick’s” maiden voyage has been so successful is due in no small part to its first production. Co-commissioned by five opera companies, it is adding a sixth city with this Washington appearance. The director, Leonard Foglia, was an active member of the creative team almost from the start — making dramaturgical recommendations — so his production, shaped partly by set designer Robert Brill and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, is veritably a part of the work. The result is an arresting and beautiful evening in which the visual elements play a role in the storytelling, particularly the projections: lines of white light coalescing into the outlines of the ship Pequod, or limning fragile rowboats, like shells, rocking atop the roiling sea.
That’s not to say the opera doesn’t have its longueurs — another aspect, indeed, of operatic tradition. The entire thing is set at sea — either onboard ship or, in a couple of scenes, actually in the water. And there are moments when the sailors’ sense of being cooped up in a small space for a long time carries over to the audience, particularly once you’ve already seen this particular production’s magic bag of tricks and are no longer quite as beguiled by its visual innovations.
Another factor in “Moby-Dick’s” success to date has been strong casting. WNO engaged some of the singers who created the work, notably the tenor Stephen Costello as the protagonist, here called Greenhorn, and the luminous soprano Talise Trevigne as cabin boy Pip — the one female voice in this all-male opera.
Costello is one of a small group of promising 30-something American tenors who have been marked as upcoming superstars — he’ll be back at WNO later this season in “L’Elisir d’Amore” — and he sings this somewhat faceless role with sweet and gentle ease. Trevigne, meanwhile, elevates Pip into a star of the evening with a more obviously dramatic arc, descending from stock operatic-page cuteness into visionary, Holy-Fool like madness, all sung with a voice that’s high and rich and round, like a vein of silver running through the night.
Operatic tradition has often dealt in stereotypes, and “Moby-Dick,” too, challenges performers to make of their characters more than their outlines. Queequeg, an island native who opens the opera with religious chanting, is the archetypal noble savage, sung by Eric Greene with a rich, warm penetrating sound. Starbuck, the first mate who strives to bring reason and humanity to bear against Captain Ahab’s fanaticism, has the potential to be one of the most human figures on stage, but remained a little wooden in Matthew Worth’s clear baritone voice. (Among the smaller character roles, Norman Garrett stood out as the offstage Captain Gardiner.)
The key role, of course, is Ahab himself — cast here not as a bass-baritone (a la “The Flying Dutchman”) but as a dramatic tenor (a la “Peter Grimes”), and with overtones of both. This role contains many of what are intended as the opera’s dramatic highlights, but in a rather one-dimensional framework that Carl Tanner was not quite able to flesh out. He did sing honorably, and made some fresh sounds — a reminder that one of Heggie’s strengths as a composer is the ability to write music that is comfortable to sing.
We’re left, then, with an opera that works dramatically, expresses itself in traditional musical terms with the emotional surges and clear gestures of a bygone operatic world yet with a 21st-century air — all capably led here by conductor Evan Rogister in his company debut — and generally captivates its audience.
I have only been disappointed that it has not, for me, revealed much new insight on repeated hearings. I find that Heggie sometimes goes for the easy solution, bridging over a moment of existential crisis — like the scene in which Pip, flung from the whaling boat, is drifting alone, suspended high above the stage as a small figure in the proscenium against an empty expanse of water — with a catchy sea chantey, a kind of emotional mitigation. And though he invested much in Ahab’s solo arias, they seem ultimately less telling than the ensembles and duets — like the slightly off-kilter one between Greenhorn and the deranged Pip over Queequeg’s sickbed.
I am curious how this opera will fare in a different production, in which the filmic aspects of the score are not as closely reflected in the clean visual imagery that Brill and McCarthy created. In this production, certainly, “Moby-Dick” is that rare bird: a contemporary grand opera that delivers on a grand-opera scale.
If opera is like film, “Moby-Dick” is for the multiplex, not the art house — just, in short, where a lot of grand opera belongs, now more than ever. And if it falls short of its literary antecedent, well: That’s opera, folks.
“Moby-Dick” will have five more performances, through March 8.