Dallas — Moby-Dick returned home to Dallas after a world tour, universally lauded and with a scrapbook full of positive reviews. Originally, the opera was commissioned from composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer by The Dallas Opera to celebrate the new Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Commissions these days are done by a consortium of opera companies and Moby-Dick is no exception. After its 2010 TDO premiere, it was performed by commission partners: The San Francisco Opera, The San Diego Opera, The State Opera of South Australia and The Calgary Opera. It has been performed in many other cities, including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
The San Diego Opera mounted the production in the 2011-2012 season, well before the company came close to folding after the 2014 season. However, the company was rescued by a crowdfunding campaign that brought the company 2.2 million in public donations from foreign countries and well as most of the states. The company went through some hard times but, under new management, the company has stabilized and is back to a three-opera season with two bonus events. Moby-Dick was a big success in San Diego, selling more than 84 percent of the tickets. (The Dallas Opera’s 2015 premiere, Heggie’s Great Scott, was also in partnership with San Diego Opera.)
Back in Dallas, the opera opened on Friday evening with a nearly full house of patrons, many of which saw the opera in its premiere six years ago. There are some cast changes while some local favorites remain. The world’s leading Wagnerian tenor, Ben Heppner retired and the role of Captain Ahab is now sung by the current leading Wagnerian tenor, Jay Hunter Morris, who began the role in San Diego. Morris was born in Paris, Texas, graduated from Baylor University and did graduate work at Southern Methodist University. He is magnificent in the role, which feels expanded. Ahab should remain a signature role for Morris, who is one of the great Siegfrieds of our day.
Local favorite Stephen Costello, who has gone on to fame and the Metropolitan Opera stage, repeats his performance in the other major role of Greenhorn, later identified as Ishmael. Bass-baritone Morgan Smith remains in the role of Starbuck, Ahab’s second in command and a voice of reason in Ahab’s insane chase of the elusive white whale.
Some other roles brought some new singers in TDO debuts. South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana is the strange and tattooed Polynesian, Queequeg, who has a bromance with Greenhorn. David Cangelosi is excellent as Flask. Soprano Jacqueline Echols is impressive in the pants role of the cabin boy, Pip. Peter McGillivray is effective as Stubb. All are excellent both vocally and dramatically in their roles.
The direction, by Keturah Stickann for this revival as originally conceived by Leonard Foglia, remains fresh. Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, which caused a sensation at the premiere creating the sets with structural line drawings, as well as the atmospheres with realistic seascapes, are just as sensational as in the first production.
Scheer’s libretto remains a wondrous condensation of a 600-page book, filled with voluminous digressions about whaling and sea lore. Nothing of real importance has been omitted in Scheer’s rendition, which he reduced to a series of intimate interactions to present the essence of Melville’s literary intentions without any damage to the author’s use of language.
Since this is not a premiere, there is little to be gained by commenting again on the opera itself, which I enjoyed greatly and reviewed comprehensively when it debuted. If you are interested, you can read that review here. The purpose of this review is to comment on the production of Moby-Dick that opened on Friday.
Moby-Dick feels very different and but oddly the same. The cause of this surprising difference between then and now has to be that TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume is on the podium.
I admit that it is difficult to remember much in the way of detail in a performance heard six years ago, but the overwhelming impression of the opera was so different on Friday that the comparison of individual details, then and now, are not only impossible but superfluous.
First of all, with Villaume on the podium, Heggie’s score comes across as much more neo-tonal, lush, magnificently constructed and neo-romantic opera than what I perceived in the score back then. Vocal lines soar, giving singers some great bel-canto phrases that are grateful for the voice.
Ensembles are equally well-crafted with careful attention to the balance between the voices. Heggie’s orchestration alternates between the full ensemble and one solo instrument, as the dramatic situation demands. The choruses are as marvelous to sing as the leading roles and require singers with robust voices and some acrobatic abilities. Alexander Rom’s chorus creates a virile, masculine sound with impeccable intonation. Moby-Dick is an ensemble piece, and this production incorporates the close-knit efforts of everyone, on and off the stage, to achieve that goal.
This difference in perception of Heggie’s score in the hands of one conductor or another is hardly surprising. How many conductors have recorded the standard symphonic repertoire? Why bother if a masterpiece sounds the same, no matter who is on the podium? Besides, arguments over whose interpretations are better, or more authentic, is the stuff of late-night conversations of music buffs worldwide. Villaume’s reading of Moby-Dick is revelatory and revolutionized my already high impression of the score.
Allow one rant. This discussion brings up an unavoidable but important matter: the critic’s conundrum when reviewing a world premiere. We only get to hear it once, are never invited to rehearsals, and rarely get a score ahead of time to study. After a single encounter, we must make judgments which can have far-reaching effects, with such scant exposure. We can barely allow ourselves few hours to sleep on it, let alone a second hearing, before publishing our opinions for anyone interested to read and that opinion, for better or worse, will exist electronically far into the future.
With Moby-Dick, impressions by critics where it has been seen have been so high that it will surely be considered one of the great American operas.