Moby-Dick, Washington, DC

This operatic version of an American classic gets better the more it's performed.

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The Washington National Opera production of “Moby-Dick” is a crowd pleaser. Jake Heggie’s music is tonal, sometimes glancing off Puccini, but ventures out with touches of Philip Glass minimalism and other occasions of atonality that make it satisfyingly contemporary. Maestro Evan Rogister adeptly handles a large orchestra and cast that distinguish themselves for virtuosity. Director Leonard Foglia, the original director and dramaturg of the highly acclaimed 2010 premiere by the Dallas Opera, garners praise for keeping the many moving parts coherently fluid.

Gene Scheer’s libretto poetically compresses Herman Melville’s masterpiece about the peg-legged sea captain Ahab (played by tenor Carl Tanner), obsessed with killing the white whale that injured him. One interesting feature of Sheer’s handicraft is that he calls Ishmael, the nobody narrator of Melville’s novel, Greenhorn (played by tenor Stephen Costello), and instead of the opera opening as the novel does with “Call me Ishmael,” it ends with that line. The dramatic effect is that Greenhorn, the lone survivor of Captain Ahab’s ship after it and the crew meet Moby Dick, becomes a replacement son to Captain Gardiner, the man looking for his flesh-and-blood son lost after a storm at sea and whom Ahab would not help.

What distinguishes the staging of this three-hour opera from other operatic sea stories like Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and “Billy Budd” are the multimedia visual effects created for the Dallas Opera premiere and continued through all productions leading to this sixth WNO production. Star triangulations and ship modeling that shows the “bones” of the Pequod and the smaller whaling boats are projection features that add a sense of wonder and expand the set, which takes place entirely at sea. The WNO team making this happen include set designer Robert Brill (set designer of the world premiere of “Moby-Dick”), lighting designer Gavan Swift, and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy (projection designer of the world premiere of “Moby-Dick”).

Favorite performers for this production include soprano Talise Trevigne in the pants role of Pip; baritone Matthew Worth as Starbuck, the foil to Captain Ahab; and baritone Eric Greene, playing the noble savage Queequeg. Memorable scenes both for acting and music include the full cast singing “death to Moby Dick” and thumping their harpoons on the ship’s deck as if they were a barbaric tribe; the Greenhorn-Queequeg duet, where Greenhorn declares he wants to visit Queequeg’s island; young Pip’s mad scene brought on by a whaling incident that left him alone in the sea for hours; and Ahab and Starbuck commiserating on the wives and sons left behind. A favorite dance scene (Keturah Stickann choreographed) was the Spanish ladies scene, where the men imitate dancing with women in stylized comic movement.

Karren L. Alenier

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