It’s amazing what a ripping good yarn enhanced by instantly recognizable themes can do for an audience. American composer Jake Heggie’s opera, “Moby Dick,” now being performed by the Pittsburgh Opera, is in many ways a return to that fundamental principle for operatic success: create characters audiences care about, and endow them with memorable motifs to better manipulate the viewers’ emotions.
For fans despairing for the future of the art form, Heggie may be showing the way forward by leading us back to that elemental truth, that unmatchable dramatic potential opera possesses. Like the masters of old, he has attracted a group of singers devoted to his work (not least of whom is Frederika von Stade, who features Heggie’s work in recitals and who will appear with the composer in recital this summer). While no one would accuse Heggie of returning opera to the 19th century, potential audience members fearful that “modern” opera will be unrelentingly cacophonous, abstract and dreary should be aware that they will probably be humming, “Death to Moby Dick!” as they stride out at intermission, and may be ordering their steak “tough, rrrrare, and bloody” at their next visit to a chophouse. Heggie’s gift for melody is undeniable, and his ability recall themes, such as the one for Starbuck’s wife and child, at moments of great peril heighten the drama deliciously.
While the influence of Phillip Glass in his portrayal of the chaos of the roiling ocean is undeniable, as is Leonard Bernstein’s on his brass, the sound world Heggie creates is uniquely his own for this opera set entirely at sea. Heggie’s presence at opening night must have been both a blessing and a curse for conductor Antony Walker: it’s certainly rare for an opera conductor to have the composer available for consultation, but Heggie hasn’t been shy about criticizing previous productions, and I’m not sure I’d want him staring into my back as I worked. He sets a very high standard.
Captain of the Show
Few novels can match the influence and prodigious intellectualism of Herman Melville’s leviathan, “Moby Dick.” The task of translating the novel to the stage would appear overwhelming, but librettist Gene Scheer succeeded in identifying and staging key dramatic events in the novel and, when necessary, conflating a number of scenes, such as the different gams (meeting of whaling ships at sea) into one pivotal scene with Gardiner (recent George London Foundation winner Ben Taylor, also appearing as harpooner Daggoo). It wasn’t easy to pull attention away from tenor Roger Honeywell’s towering Ahab, but placing Taylor’s resonant baritone in a side box to plead for help in finding his lost son nearly did so. Dramatically the focus remained on the anguished Ahab ruthlessly pursuing his quest for the White Whale at any price. In bringing to life one of literature’s most iconic figures, Honeywell not only needed a voice to carry above a large male chorus and full orchestra, but was also required to sing his demanding role with one knee balanced on an ivory peg, his lower leg bent behind and strapped out of sight. Ahab’s ivory leg is an indispensable plot point and can’t be easily faked. Honeywell’s gruffness on stage must not have been entirely feigned; I can’t imagine the strain that moving around the stage in the prosthetic device must have put on his body, particularly the core that must be strong enough to produce the sound the score requires. Consider also he just performed this same strenuous role at Utah Opera, as well as LA Opera. I first saw Honeywell as Capt. Vere in Melville’s other great seaman’s tale, “Billy Budd,” at Des Moines Metro Opera last summer; at this point, it’s a wonder he doesn’t bark orders at his family, so accustomed he must be to complete command. His performance as a tortured Ahab was nothing short of heroic, from fits of towering rage down to the almost infantile sleep sounds that caused Starbuck to put down the gun Ahab had recently pointed at his own head.
Emotional Core of the Evening
In making the decision to stage the opera entirely at sea, Scheer and Heggie deliberately sacrificed crucial early scenes at the Spouter Inn, the scenes that establish the intimate friendship between the Greenhorn we call Ishmael (Sean Panikkar) and the heroic “savage” Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana, who also sang the role at LA Opera). The scene Scheer substitutes aship highlights Queequeg’s strangeness to Greenhorn, but ultimately it is music more than words that will define their relationship. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to hear Panikkar again since his Rodolfo in Cincinnati scrubbed a Cleveland “Bohème” right out of my ear. A former Pittsburgh Opera resident, Panikkar’s performance, while not as flashy as others, is the one I keep going back to. His gorgeous lyric tenor never failed to do his bidding, and while the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck (Michael Mayes) often dominated the action, Panikkar’s scenes with Ngqungwana provided the emotional core of the evening. Fans of the novel who are aghast that one of the most famous opening lines in all English literature, “Call me Ishmael,” is missing from Act one, stay tuned for a brilliant resolution in Act two, when Greenhorn, floating at sea upon best friend Queequeg’s casket, is called upon to identify himself as the lone survivor of the Pequod’s encounter with Moby Dick.
Experienced With the Maestro
If others in the cast have experience in their roles, Mayes must have the most experience with Heggie. In addition to noble Starbuck, Mayes has played the lead in Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” to great acclaim, and appeared in his other operas “Out of the Darkness,” “Three Decembers,” and “Great Scott.” Mayes presented a character not of square-jawed rectitude to combat Ahab’s insanity, but one of deep humanity. His determination to get home to his wife and child, present only as a haunting air, contrasted so sharply with Ahab’s indifference to not only to the loss of Gardiner’s son but also the suffering of the Pequod’s own Pip (lyric soprano Jacqueline Echols in a trouser role, the only female voice in the cast). Other standouts include Malcolm MacKenzie (another veteran of the LA Opera production), who makes the most of Stubb’s high-spirited nature and who, with Eric Ferring’s Flask, brings some much-needed relief from the tension of life aboard ship. Scott Cuva sings Tashtego. Andy Berry and George Milosh are Spanish and Nantucket sailors, respectively.
“Moby Dick” was originally commissioned to open the new opera house in Dallas in 2010, and benefited from stage wizardry and special effects beyond the reach of many theaters. The new production, sponsored by Utah Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Opera San Jose, Teatre Liceu in Barcelona, and Chicago Opera Theater, doesn’t have Pip floating 30 feet overhead or spectacular staging of the destruction of harpooner boats. The backdrop is a nautical map of the voyage of the Pequod, and the main set a revolving turntable that can be spun to suggest the prow of the ship or to provide stairs for Ahab to clamber up and down. While Echols must have been happy not to have to sing her big moment lost at sea suspended in a harness, there was no escaping lookout duty for Panikkar and Ngqungwana, who were perched precariously high on the mast to sing the pivotal scene in which Queequeg feels death approaching and asks for his casket to be built. I suppose Honeywell couldn’t be the only one being asked to suffer for his art. In this case, great suffering truly does make great art.