BWW Reviews: Washington National Opera's MOBY-DICK at the Kennedy Center is Stunning!
Much like the ocean waters in which the show's title character resides, Washington National Opera's production of Moby-Dick is a bit choppy at times but is nevertheless an imaginative and soaring production. Transferring Herman Melville's 1851 novel into an opera is not an enviable task by any means. Yet, by reframing the story and having it be told in an active voice, rather than the novel's narrative tone, composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have created a solid work, complete with a gorgeous score, stunning vocals and an eye catching visual design.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story (including myself prior to Saturday night's opening performance), the plot centers around the crew of a whaling ship, The Pequod, as they hunt for the legendary white whale named Moby-Dick. The crew is led by the obsessed Captain Ahab, a veteran seaman whose first encounter with the whale left him maimed and seething for vengeance. His 40 year long preoccupation with the whale is challenged by his Chief Mate Starbuck who would rather Ahab pursue a more financially lucrative course rather than chase the storied whale. Joining them is a crew which also includes pagan harpooner Queequeg and a disenchanted greenhorn named Ishmael.
In constructing the opera, Heggie and Scheer did something really smart by not creating a literal page-to-stage adaption. Instead they focused on the themes of the story: Captain Ahab's monomaniacal hunt for Moby-Dick; Starbuck's longing to return home after a safe and prosperous trip; and the friendship of Queequeg and Ishmael. These are exactly the types of big themes that opera calls for! They are the foundation for the piece's conflicts and additionally, the guide for the vocal aspects and acting characteristics of each character.
Tenor Carl Tanner gives an incredible multi-dimensional performance as Captain Ahab. An important aspect of Tanner's portrayal of Ahab is that we see his relationship with Moby-Dick as more than just obsession. In Act II, Tanner reveals Ahab's vulnerability, allowing the audience to see the tortuous toll this hunt has taken on him. Tanner's voice, which is in top form, fills the Kennedy Center Opera House allowing us to feel the pain caused by this one whale. Suddenly, we're no long theatergoers but crewmen aboard The Pequod joining in the search for Moby-Dick.
In contrast was Matthew Worth's measured performance as Starbuck. Worth's baritone voice seemed a perfect fit for a good man, continually overruled by a fanatic captain. The opera's highpoints were the moments in which Tanner and Worth shared the stage, exploring the relationship between Ahab and Starbuck and the boundaries each considers crossing to resolve their conflicts. We in-turn see how it's more than the seas that are troubled aboard The Pequod. Moby-Dick has done more than just take Ahab leg, he's begun to turn good men bad.
Eric Greene gives a tender performance as Queequeg and one that captures your attention every minute he's onstage. In fact, tender is not exactly a word one would associate with a pagan harpooner, but Greene stresses Queequeg's humanity. From the opera's opening moments we see Queequeg praying in a gorgeous tone, a contrast to the others onstage. Whereas Ishmael is quick to dismiss the world, Queequeg greets it with his faith. Much like the juxtaposition between Ahab and Starbuck, we see a similar situation been Queequeg and Ishmael. The two don't collide on the direction of the ship, but on their respective outlooks on life. Tenor Stephen Costello is all too quick to emphasize Ishmael's embittered attitude. It's a problematic performance which, despite Costello's marvelous voice, comes off as all too predictable for the fate that awaits his character. There's more to Ishmael that Costello has yet to discover.
In composing Moby-Dick, it seems as if Heggie took his inspiration from the sea. The score conveys the unpredictable nature of the ocean, calm and soothing, rough and unforgiving complete with tender arias, company chants and a touching mid-air duet between Queerqueg and Ishmael. Maestro Evan Rogister beautifully brought Heggie's score to life. After years of attending Broadway musicals that over-amplified, it was a magnificent feeling to hear a well-conducted orchestra. Heggie's score perfectly balanced the drama onboard with unpredictability of the ocean transporting audiences outside of the Opera House.
Adding to the aquatic feeling of this production was an eye-catching set design by Robert Brill. He has brilliantly turned The Pequod from a setting into another character. With a stunning use of visual effects, Brill was able to give the audience a three dimensional impression of the design and feel of the ship, the battles between the whalers and their prey, and even the sea itself. The physical set pieces built upon Brill's multimedia design by showing us the bowels of the ship. One especially eloquent scene featured the crew as they rendered down the whale fat. Brill's design compliments Director Leonard Foglia's decision to have the scene play out in slow motion, allowing us to see the beauty in an otherwise rough life that is that of a whaler.
While Brill was successful in transforming The Pequod into another character, Scheer's libretto struggled in deciding which characters to focus on. Granted, Moby-Dick is a 900 page novel filled with a plethora of characters. But despite his best intentions to have the story focus on Ahab, Ismael, Queequeg and Starbuck, the opera at times was adrift. The character of Pip seemed to be an afterthought and the "Spanish Ladies" scene in Act I was not necessary. Moments like these only distracted from our four main characters (plus the ship) and of course, the search for Moby-Dick!
Washington National Opera's production of Moby-Dick marks the show's East Coast premiere. After being commissioned and premiering at The Dallas Opera Company, Moby-Dick has since traveled to Calgary, San Diego , San Francisco and Australia. As American composers strive to establish themselves in the pantheon of opera, Moby-Dick is a solid achievement. Not only for its success in reintroducing a classic, but also for adapting it to a new medium.
Run time is three hours with one intermission. Washington National Opera's Moby-Dick plays thru March 8th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, call (202) 416-8000 or purchase them online.
Graphics: Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab (center) and the company of Moby-Dick. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.