Opera fans don’t get many opportunities to see things that nearly no one in the audience has seen before. It’s a test of how a work of art stands up on its own, without any famous aria or overture as a point of comparison. Some opera nuts may have seen Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick in Dallas, where it premiered in 2010, or the handful of other cities it’s been performed (San Francisco, San Diego, Calgary, Adelaide). But the closest reference most viewers will have is a boring novel they read in high school and purged from their memory shortly thereafter.
So as a refresher, Moby-Dick was really just a metaphor for our own alienation from society, which Dr. Frankenstein shared with his pet whale. Or something. Anyway, point is, the titular beast isn’t the focus of the story, so don’t be disappointed that you don’t see a giant animatronic sea mammal flop around on stage. What you do see, though, might be more visually impressive.
It does not detract from the opera’s singers or writers to say that the main attraction of Moby-Dick is its staging. That goes for the imaginative sets—-the deck of the whaling ship, a web of ropes, masts, and booms; an eerie, Satanic-looking whale rendering vat—-and especially for designer Elaine McCarthy’s animated projections: the Pequod (viewed from below, looming over the audience like a Star Destroyer), a ferocious sea storm, and Moby-Dick’s giant eye. A particularly memorable effect comes when the harpooners take to their whaleboats, projected over them as they perch on a sloping stage, from which they tumble down as their boats capsize.
As for the music, it’s pleasantly dramatic if not as arresting as the visuals. Heggie’s composition, kind of Danny Elfman-by-way-of-Philip Glass with a dash of Debussy, is most lush and cinematic when it’s setting scenes, unencumbered by singing. Librettist Scheer probably had the tougher job paring down Melville’s 9,000 page book into a reasonably short (by opera standards) two acts. Thus the story boils down to interpersonal relationships: Captain Ahab and Starbuck (“How much will your vengeance bring us on the Nantucket market?”), Greenhorn/Ishmael and Queequeg, Pip, and the rest of the crew.
In setting the novel to vocal music, Heggie makes some curious choices. He makes Pip a soprano, a wise move to add some gender diversity to an otherwise all-male cast (in the olden days, that part would have gone to a castrato—-here’s to modernity!). Talise Trevigne’s soprano is too pretty for her to pass for a boy, but that’s one of those good problems. And Ahab is a heroic tenor, surprising when opera villains are usually baritones or basses. Here Carl Tanner is capable in driving home Ahab’s obsession, less so his humanity. He bares his teeth a lot, and much of his delivery is less heroic than sneering. As Queequeg, the cannibal with a heart of gold, Eric Greene puts on a multifaceted performance, and his friendship with Ishmael (Stephen Costello) comes through naturally.
All of this singing is in English, which would normally score points for accessibility, except with lines like “I shall have the doubloon” and “I would fain be welded with Thee,” might as well be Italian. Still, it’s a real accomplishment: a still-new opera that’s not only pleasing to the ear but genuinely fun to watch. Fans of opera or musicals, contemporary or old classical, Melville or good writers, will all find some blubber to chew on.
The production continues through March 8 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $25 – $305. (800) 444-1324.