Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Moby-Dick", opera by Jake Heggie of Melville's novel, is impressive visually, less so musically (to me, at least)


The new opera “Moby-Dick”, based on Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, plays a little more gently than expected, at least as I experienced it at the Kennedy Center last night.
  
Compose Jake Heggie, 52 (both a composer and pianist) provides a straightforward musical narration, with a chamber orchestra style that varies from French-style romanticism and mild impressionism to some of the more inventive palette we usually associate with Benjamin Britten.  Indeed, the storm sequence in this opera resembles musically a similar scene from Peter Grimes (one of the Sea Interludes), but the Britten opera that invites obvious comparison is Billy Budd (which I saw at the Kennedy Center in the1990s).  The latter opera still seems much more powerful, and is practically a metaphor for the debate over “unit cohesion” that followed the “gays in the military” issue, for which Britten was prescient.
  
The opera does have several orchestral interludes, including an opening prelude (to call it an overture would be a stretch) with an adjacent-notes melody which reminds me of my own teen impromptu in what sounded like the same key, A Minor.  The tempo is often moderately slow, like Andante. The opera (after two acts each with two main scenes) has an Epilogue, and given the tragedy of the whale hunt and the catastrophe that results (despite coming through a storm), the quiet ending, dying away, is appropriate to honor the one survivor. The running time, exclusive of intermission, seems to be about 140 minutes.    
         
Instead, here, it’s hard these days to build up a lot of steam over the issues in the story. Whales are cetacean, and their biological relatives (dophins and especially orcas) may be the most intelligent animals on the planet after man, proving the idea of convergent evolution and supporting the idea that intelligent life arises when there is enough time on any favorable planet. 

But in the 19th century, whale oil was big business, and it remained so until electricity was in common use (see the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America, TV Blog, Nov. 11, 2012). 
  
The stagecraft was interesting, except that amplified itself by providing what amounts to Imax film in some scenes, such as with the openings star map, upon which the masts of the ship are superimposed. Later other effects include showing life boars mounted vertically into CGI effects on the screen.  The novel has been filmed a few times by Hollywood, and if you’ve substitute=taught high school English very much, you’ve become familiar with this novel. 
  
The libretto is by Gene Scheer, and the program notes talk about the difficulty in writing it. 
  
This (Washington National Opera) performance is an East Coast premier (it had started in Dallas and also been performed in San Francisco)   The conductor is a youthful Evan Rogister. 
  
The University of California at San Diego offers a video interviewing the composer here.
  
The Kennedy Center’s website for the opera is here.
  
The performance last night offered a QA, which I had to skip because an early Wed. engagement that I had to get up at 5:30 AM today for.  
  
In Dallas, there used to be a gay bar on Maple Ave. called Moby-Dick.  

Picture:  The Goodspeed, in Alexandria, VA, 2007.  

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