January 28, February 1 and 3, 2012
Listen to CBC’s Eyeopener for my live review of Moby Dick on Monday, January 30 at 7:40
Upon reading Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick in consideration for an opera, San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie says he was surprised at how musical, lyrically charged and operatic the book already was. “I could hear musical textures, rhythms, orchestral and vocal colours as I considered it”. If this was the case, it is then disappointingly unfortunate that in the realization of Heggie’s work onto the stage, the question is not how did he do it, but why did he fall so short? How is it that a classic story of passion and madness and revenge and loyalty was such a drag? Except for the mesmerizing video projections – the real star of the show. But more on those later.
Moby Dick was commissioned from Heggie (best known for his operatic adaptation of Dead Man Walking) by an opera consortium, headed by Dallas Opera that also included San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, the State Opera of South Australia, and Calgary Opera. It’s a big ticket item (coming in at $1.5 million) with equally big ticket talent. Star Canadian tenor Ben Heppner takes on the role of the peg-legged Captain Ahab, his real leg harnessed behind him throughout the production for the effect.
The story deviates little from the original novel save the fact that the famous first line, “Call me Ishmael”, is relegated to the last words spoken in the production, freeing the story up from the narrative first person constraints and treating the novel like a memoir that took place long after events occurred. An easily digestible full synopsis of the opera can be found at http://www.calgaryopera.com/performancesandevents/mobydick/synopsis.php if you want to read about all the little bits and details. This is opera after all, so there are many. But the gist of the story is fairly simple. The whaling ship Pequod sets out only to discover from its Captain Ahab that the real reason they are sailing is not to hunt whales, but specifically to hunt the white whale Moby Dick that took Ahab’s leg in a previous encounter. Ahab’s desire for revenge is not only cold but obsessively insane. Despite the protestations of his first mate, Ahab will not be deterred in his quest. Not even when it brings about the loss and death of his crew, the damage to his cargo and ultimately the destruction of his ship and his own death when he finally encounters the whale.
It’s hard not to agree with Heggie that this is a story just begging to be set to music in the operatic realm. But instead of a powerful or interesting composition, we mostly get dull music that is at best forgettable and at worst something that sounds like a high school marching band riff such as the pivotal scene where Ahab and Moby Dick face off. The exceptions to this are the pieces written for the two strongest performers in the opera. Greenhorn’s (Colin Ainsworth) aria befriending a pagan native harpooner is a moving and emotional swath of music helped along by some lovely wording courtesy of Librettist Gene Scheer. Equally, first mate Starbuck’s (Brett Polegato) aria in Ahab’s cabin as he debates whether to kill the Captain and longs for his family is musically fulfilling and a joy to listen to.
If you glossed over the “two strongest performers” comment in the previous paragraph, be assured that it was not a typo where Heppner was mistakenly omitted. Right from his first appearance, Heppner’s voice sounded thin and lacking command. Often times overpowered by the orchestra, he delivered arias without any of the rage or passion or madness that the character called for. Believe me; I take no pleasure in writing this. I’m rather horrified that I was underwhelmed by such a lauded and admired tenor. In his defence, the only things that might have contributed this this lacklustre performance was the unsure footing the peg and harness might have created (Heppner himself admits that his powerful voice comes from his legs) and the totally stagnant, stand in one spot and sing, staging by Director LeonardFoglia.
In fact, I would fault Foglia as much as Heggie for causing the boredom in this production. I had happily thought that inert performers without any acting chops were a thing of the past. But practically every major character in Moby Dick was planted feet down facing the audience when singing with no regard for emoting or interacting with the action on stage. The worst of this was when Foglia had characters up on the ship masts singing without movement for what seemed like an intolerable amount of time. Compare this to the background action and choral scenes which were beautifully staged (the fight and ship capsizing scenes in particular) and it’s confusing why Foglia decided to do so little with his main characters.
But if Foglia was hit or miss on the stage, his decision to project things on stage was a brilliant choice that paid off handsomely. To overcome the obstacles of storm scenes, water swells and a whaling ship that not only needed to sail, but needed to sink, Foglia commissioned Elaine J. McCarthy (of Wicked fame) to create video projections that took Robert Brill’s set from good to amazing. It is McCarthy’s work that opens Moby Dick with an animation of a starry night that morphs into a massive whaling ship seemingly floating out into the audience and causing gasps of amazement. It is in fact McCarthy’s continual projections throughout the opera with their welcome eye candy distraction that save this production from being a total yawn. But even McCarthy’s fantastic touches can’t save what should have been the climactic scene between Ahab and Moby Dick. The odd pauses in action, the banal music, the stiff physicality and Heppner’s uninspired singing was in total one of the biggest letdowns I’ve ever seen at the opera.
The French playwright Moliere once said, “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.” If opera were to be judged on this production of Moby Dick alone, that saying could be altered to read – of all the noises known to man, opera is the most disappointing.
For the guys – The video and animation elements are brilliantly cool. But why go to see a Moby Dick that has no bravado or passion? The testosterone has left the building. SKIP IT
For the girls – Greenhorn is a character you will like and a performer that will impress, and yes the projections are captivating. But the music will leave you flat as will the lack of acting. SKIP IT
For the occasional audience – Well, it’s in English. And once again, the projections are amazing to watch. But with the performance clocking in at 3 hours and no music you can latch onto, you’ll be wishing the whale would come and end it all much sooner. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Two good supporting performers, unique use of video and occasional lovely libretto. Not exactly what you’d expect from Heggie and Heppner. SKIP IT