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A White Whale at The Opera

Kennedy Center Opera House
02/22/2014 -  & February 25, 28, March 2, 5, 8, 2014
Jake Heggie: Moby Dick
Eric Greene (Queequeg), Stephen Costello (Ishmael), Alexander Lewis (Flask), Matthew Worth (Starbuck), Christian Bowers (Stubb), Talise Trevigne (Pip), Carl Tanner (Captain Ahab), Matthew Joseph Minor (Daggoo), Vijay Ghosh (Tashtego), Aurelio Dominguez (Nantucket Sailor), Andrew McLaughlin (Spanish Sailor), Norman Garrett (Captain Gardiner)
Washington National Opera Chorus, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Evan Rogister (Conductor)
Leonard Foglia (Production), Keturah Stickann (Movement Director and Choreographer), Robert Brill (Set Designer), Jane Greenwood (Costume Designer), Gavin Swift (Lighting Designer, based on original designs by Donald Holder), Elaine McCarthy (Production Designer), Anne Ford-Coates for Elsen Associates (Hair and Makeup Designer), Michael Baitzer, Stephanie Rhodes, Laurie Rodgers (Assistant Conductors), Crystal Manich (Assistant Director), Lisa Anderson (Stage Manager)

S. Costello, C. Tanner (© Scott Suchman)

The Washington National Opera continued its 2013/2014 season with spectacular performances of the new American opera Moby Dick by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer in it’s east coast premiere. Based on the 19th century classic novel by Herman Melville, this stunning technical production with enormous nautical sets and breathtaking multimedia visual effects lifts audiences right out of their seats and sweeps them onto the high seas with thrilling, hair-raising theatrical effects. Most viewers would agree that this is the most technically challenging production the WNO has ever mounted. I attended the opening performance and went again on the closing night, just to make sure I had not over-estimated my initial appraisal from the excitement of the prima. I did not. It was just as impressive at the closing as it had been at the opening. Certainly anyone who was anybody of importance in the opera world on the East Coast was in attendance on the opening night. It was an event not to be missed!

The cast was headed by the magnificent tenor Carl Tanner. His entrance was reminiscent of Otello’s “Esultate” in Verdi’s opera of the same name. In other words he begins with a vocal blast and ends the opera in the same manner. His voice just does not give out. It is ablaze throughout the entire opera from start to finish, without ever showing signs of faltering. Carl Tanner is truly amazing. I predict a big future for him. His chosen repertoire, which he has already sung around the globe at such big houses as the MET, ROH Covent Garden, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Dresden, Bolshoi, Tokyo, etc., are the big dramatic tenor parts, which very few can successfully sing. Roles such as the lead tenor parts in Aida, Peter Grimes, Pique Dame, Manon Lescaut, Turandot, Tosca, Fanciulla del West, etc. His vocal timbre is ablaze with a bronzed clarion sound. Mr. Tanner literally caused a thrill in the house every time he opened up that trumpet in his throat. He was just a sensation to hear. The other singers in the cast matched him very well by their artistry, but none of them were comparable vocally.

Young Stephen Costello, who has made quite a name for himself recently at the MET and other major houses, was superb as Greenhorn (Ishmael). However he was just not in the same league vocally as Carl Tanner, who for better or worse dwarfed every other singer on stage. Nonetheless Mr. Costello sang beautifully and gave a well-defined and sympathetic portrayal of Greenhorn.

It was a wise and most interesting decision to create the role of Pip as a “trouser role” for soprano Talise Trevigne. Miss Trevigne was heard here in 2013 as Julie LaVerne in WNO’s production of Show Boat. She was ideally cast in this role, and the scenes of her as Pip adrift in the ocean were technically magical.

The other noteworthy singer of major importance was baritone Eric Greene as the native Pacific Ocean islander Queequeg. His voice is striking and of Wagnerian prominence. I felt his portrayal could have been more brutal and menacing, but I assume the director did not see it that way or felt it politically incorrect to draw a Black character with blatant cannibalistic overtones. Be that as it may, I felt Mr. Greene sang very well, but dramatically underplayed the role and did not look the character. He should have had a shaved head, a naked tattooed body, pierced earrings, and a necklace of human bones. As it was he wore a bowler hat, which looked ridiculous, and a jacket that made him resemble a circus clown or a minstrel singer. Whatever was the costume designer thinking?

The Men’s Chorus of the Washington National Opera was superbly thrilling from their first entrance to the end of the opera. Their sound was robust, warm, and manly. They have a lot to sing in this work and they were indeed most impressive. Kudos to chorus master Steven Gathman for his superb preparation and training of this excellent ensemble.

Jake Heggie’s score is most beautiful and entrancing. It is a score that is immediately modern to the ears but most pleasingly listenable. Like many composers before him, such as Claude Debussy, Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Benjamin Britten, who have painted musical portraits of the sea, Mr. Heggie is quite successful in capturing the ocean in all it’s beauty and majesty, as well as it’s awesome power and terror. I found it most enjoyable at first hearing and even more so at the second. It is not one of those modern works in which the audience leaves scratching their heads, wondering what they have just heard.

Much of the success for these opening performances of Moby Dick must of course be attributed to the brilliant and extremely competent conducting of Maestro Evan Rogister. For the first performances of a brand new work, it must be said that the performances ran very smoothly, with a good deal of nuance and yes, even panache! In my estimation it is an extremely fine new American opera, and destined to become a classic. The Washington National Opera must really be commended on the presentation and promotion of this new opera. I trust they will bring it back soon for more viewings in future seasons. It deserves to be heard again and by many more audiences.

Micaele Sparacino



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