December 2012

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

Renate Stendhal

Pleasantly accessible music and a spectacular stage-set; one of the most ambitious and arcane American novels made easily digestible: Jake Heggie's new opera Moby-Dick has been called a "triumph" by audiences and critics alike. A triumph of wishful thinking, I would say, in a culture eager to celebrate itself on the grand stage of opera. Moby-Dick (the hyphenated operatic version) is, I will argue, a whale of a meal without much nutritional value. Unable to rejoice in the triumph, I join my colleague Mark Swed from the Los Angeles Times and add my "minority report."

Not long ago, Jake Heggie leapt to fame as an opera composer with Dead Man Walking (2000). He had a good, dramatic story at hand, with a libretto by Terence McNally, based on the book by Helen Prejean and the movie of the same name. After several further operatic works (The End of the Affair was an impasse, he admits) Heggie let McNally talk him into taking on Melville's behemoth of a novel that has notoriously little plot and only sold 3000 copies when it was published, in 1851. The new opera premiered in 2010 in Dallas, went on to Australia, Canada, San Diego, and now had its forth stop in Heggie's home town San Francisco.

The set design by Robert Brill (who successfully revived Cabaret on Broadway) is instantly seductive. There are no Nantucket scenes; everything plays on the water. The planks of Captain Ahab's ship, the Pequod, rise like a skateboard rink, creating an ideal projection surface for ocean waves, storm gales and fogs, seen through the ship's riggings, masts, ladders, ropes (projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy). The entire stage is at times covered and redesigned by sea-charts, a giant compass and skeletal blueprints of the Pequod and her whaling boats. A stage box rises and opens to scenes within the scene, for example showing the witches kitchen of men working and cooking a huge chunk of whale. In a brilliant illusion of a bird-eye view, the little whaling boats with their sailors and harpoonists seem to be floating in the vast ocean before they are torn into blue-print splinters, the men tumbling down into the dark. Another whaling ship, the Rachel, slides by, casting the shadow of her sails over the Pequod like a sinister premonition. Abstracted sail scrims move up and down creating intimate spaces on deck, flooded with gorgeous, moody light (lighting design by Gavan Swift). 

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

If only the story of Ahab's obsession with the white whale matched this inspiring stage set. It's a toss-up who is to blame for its failure to do so: composer Heggie, librettist Gene Sheer (who replaced Terence McNally), director Leonard Foglia (who also directed Heggie's The End of the Affair)?

Shrinking Melville's 800-page leviathan into a 60-page libretto is like fitting a whale into a bathtub. We get the bare-bone plot, two acts of something much akin to waiting around on the Pequod for something to happen, waiting for the showdown between Ahab and Moby Dick. When it finally comes, the music dies down into a lame, lyrical wafting, as if exhausted from all the waiting, while Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris) stands stiffly in the little boat. Then a jazzy pulsing seems to announce the entrance of Chita Rivera onstage, but no, it's Moby! The giant eye of a whale looks at us from a black whirl of projections for a second and is gone. Crash goes the boat and then the ship, all in computer-generated images of flying planks and tipping masts. Ahab is flat on the ground, and that's it. A whimper. (Where is Robert Lepage when he need him?) More lyrical ocean-wafting from the orchestra, then up in a sky-box the sole survivor (known as "Greenhorn") is slumped over another box (known to be a coffin) while the captain of the Rachel, invisibly sailing by again, calls out for his name. You guessed it. "Call me Ishmael."

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

In Melville's Moby Dick, captain and ship are doomed -– in an intriguing neighborhood to Wagner's Flying Dutchman and his ship of ghostly sailors who come to land every seven years in hopes to be redeemed from blasphemy and hell.  Ahab, the bleak soul of a man, projects his rage at God and the world onto the powerful she-creature of the ocean in blasphemous and demonic ways. He could be a fascinating operatic character, Flying Nantucket-Man, his harpoon baptized in blood, calling up the black magic of the devil. Not much of Melville's dark, tormented psychology, Christian and pagan mysticism, black magic and superstition has entered Heggie's opera. Instead of driven to extremes, the orchestration is simply agitated, instead of tormented it is robust and throbbing, instead of uncanny it is obvious. There is the expected shanty, the dancing gig, the fighting scene, the rousing chorus of united purpose, etc., but musically in all of it there is so little surprise in Heggie's score that one critical critic (Richard Sheinin in the Mercury News) called the whole affair a "derivative" – from Philip Glass via Sondheim, Bernstein and John Adams to Debussy. Never mind derivatives, I would argue. All opera composers copy and steal from each other. Rossini stole from Mozart; Puccini from Donizetti and Bellini; Wagner and Strauss from everyone, and so it went. Call it getting inspired, but the end result had to make you feel something new, put you into a state, make you tear your hair out or at least tear you off your seat.

Oddly, the dominant tonus of the opera is a sinuous, deceptively seductive lyricism that would nicely waft through the underwater gardens of the "Little Mermaid." Its inspiration clearly comes from Benjamin Britten's music for the uncanny in The Turn of the Screw -- the ghostly seduction of "innocence drowned" at the hands of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. In the most telling of the many quotations from The Turn of the Screw, Ahab offers a gold doubloon to the man who would spot Moby Dick first: He sings the word "Gold" with the exact harmonic slides in which Peter Quint and his boy victim Miles fantasize together about the precious metal of dreams and ambitions. But this lyricism, no matter how pleasant to the ear, never finds a dramatic raison d'ĂȘtre in the story of Ahab and Moby Dick.

Ahab's pursuit of deadly vengeance remains an abstraction; the crew members are cardboard figures pulled along in an episodic and fundamentally undramatic storytelling mode. The flatness of this mode is exacerbated by the lines the singers get to sing: repetitively monotonous lines devoid of any phrasing, in the speech-song style of John Adams. Like bad theater declamations, they are dead on arrival. As if Heggie somehow knew this and felt the insufficient emotional impact of his static lines, he keeps adding harmonic curlicues to the last words, extending even further the flatness of what is said.

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

Director Foglia doesn't much help the lack of drama onstage. He appeared mostly concerned with keeping his soloists and chorus on deck and not falling off the ladders, ropes and masts while they sang. This seemed hard enough. Up in the ropes, clarion-voiced tenor Stephen Costello in the role of Greenhorn (alias Ishamel) looked stiff like a Gund teddy bear stuck to a tree. The lifeless singers on a lively set reminded me of the Ring Cycle at the Met, director Robert Lepage's distraction from the task of directing his singers because of the complicated demands of the stage set.

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

In another odd choice, Heggie composed Ahab as a heroic tenor role. A demon-possessed, dark, bitter man – a Heldentenor? Perhaps such counter-type casting/composing is supposed to be original? We can only guess why Heggie (again upon McNally's advice) would take on such an additional, unnecessary challenge that undermines his main character. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris has made a radiant Siegfried both in San Francisco Opera's and the New York Met's Ring Cycle, with heroic as well as lyrically tender singing and nimble, convincingly embodied acting (see the review in these pages). As Ahab, he badly lacks charisma. He has not found a way to embody the gnarly old sailor; he seems young and pain-free, limping on his stump-leg, acting haughty and cynical, at times furious, without direction. He constantly pressures his voice into drama, "spouting his words like water from the blowhole of a whale" (Richard Scheinin). Perhaps this is an attempt to make up for the missing darkness and depth of torment in the musical writing or stage direction. It doesn't help that he has to make pronouncements about himself like, "Mad? I am demoniac!" Listen to a few bars of The Flying Dutchman and you know the haunted character in an instant. Nothing is demented or demoniac in this Ahab, nothing touches the mystical proportions of the book. Ahab's one haunted moment comes when he is moaning in his sleep, overheard by his first Mate Starbuck (well sung by baritone Morgan Smith), his sane but ineffective opponent who doesn't have the heart to kill the madman when he hears him moaning.

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

There are good moments like this, when the story sparks to life. When old Queequeg (gruffly sung by the impressive Jonathan Lemalu) sings black magic, when cabin boy Pip (Talise Trevigne in a trouser role) drifts in the sea high above the stage, losing his mind, singing inspired lines about seeing and dreaming about bloody steaks. When the Rachel approaches looking for another boy lost overboard and Ahab, unwilling to help, nevertheless finds a rare moment of humanity sending the panicked, demented Pip to the shelter of his cabin: "There you will find Pip." When Starbuck almost succeeds in disrupting Ahab's obsession, urging him to turn back, and both of them sing a duet full of feeling about home, wife, child and Nantucket. It's a moment of beautiful music, but this turning point for Ahab comes so abruptly, so psychologically out of the blue, that the tune can't quite fend off the suspicion of maudlin manipulation -- the more so as in the next moment, with perfect stage timing, Moby shows up to ruin the sentiment.

Scene4 Magazine - Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | December 2012 |

Apart from such moments, doubts and questions abound. In addition to all those already raised: could Heggie, a gay composer, and his director have been more daring and hint at the underlying homoerotic bond in Melville's novel between Queequeg and Ishmael? Could they have made more of the constant looming presence of Moby Dick? Couldn't Heggie have gone back, say, to Paul Winter for inspiration and use the achingly strange, evocative songs of whales for his score? Could he have put his own mark on the story by giving Moby Dick the "last word" instead of leaving us with the gimmicky "Call me Ishmael"?

It's hard to avoid the comparison between the way the great white whale escaped Ahab's harpoons and Melville escaped Heggie. Could it be hubris, in Heggie's case as well? Trying to turn the "great American novel" into the "great American opera"?  

Call me Fishmeal.

Cover Photo - Karen Almond
All Other Photos - Cory Weaver

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©2012 Renate Stendhal
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


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December 2012

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