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Jake Heggie's “Moby Dick” is an undeniable success. What a shame its ambitions are so soundly dwarfed by Melville's own, writes James C. Taylor ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

There is music in Melville's "Moby-Dick". Louis Mumford described the 1851 novel as "Wagnerian" in its "instrumentation", Sartre compared parts of it to Weber's "Die Freischütz"—one critic even called the novel "Beethoven's Eroica in words." Not surprisingly, many composers have tried to bring the voyage of the Pequod to the lyric stage. But like pursuing white whales, adapting "Moby-Dick" into a full-length music drama has long proved futile—until now, to judge from Jake Heggie's new "Moby-Dick" opera, which just concluded its world premiere in Dallas.

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive; the New York Times proclaimed the opera “opened in a blaze of glory” and “is an undeniable success”. It is tempting to join that choir since this "Moby Dick" is a big deal, especially for Dallas Opera, where the $2.7m production was commissioned to draw attention to the company’s sleek new $180m Winspear Opera House. And American Opera has long been trying to find its voice. (The last century is littered with ambitious, domestic operas, but few composers have managed to make American English sound appropriately operatic.) Attending the premiere, I was indeed swept up in the entertaining spectacle. Still, I left feeling dissatisfied.

The problem is that while there is music in "Moby-Dick", it is nearly impossible to craft a score that matches the ingenuity and visionary genius of Melville's novel. The book is epic, sure, but not like “Ben-Hur” or “Aida”. “Moby-Dick” did for American literature what Wagner’s early operas did for German music: it announced to the world that grand, even revolutionary ideas could be expressed in a language and form never experienced before.

Heggie's “Moby Dick”, however, signals no such sea change in modern music or dramaturgy. He clearly lacks Ahab-like ambitions to shake society. He just wants to make a hit opera. As a result, his music affirms operatic conventions rather than roiling them. Flowing strings represent calm seas whereas loud orchestral crashes reflect stormy whaling scenes. (Some passages would not have sounded out of place in Philip Sainton's score to the 1956 Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck.)

While it must be said that this three-hour work succeeds where so many literary American operas have foundered (such as Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy"; Lorin Maazel's "1984"; and John Harbison's "Great Gatsby", to name a few recent high-profile shipwrecks), adopting a masterpiece involves a Faustian bargain. Heggie and Gene Scheer, his collaborator, whittle the sprawling book into four scenes that feel faithful to the text without being slavish to it. Yet in order to create a coherent and dramatic opera, Heggie had to plunder Melville's story for his own purposes, not unlike the crew of the Pequod stripping the oil and blubber from their harvested whales.

In this way, Heggie's "Moby Dick" feels much like Charles Gounod's 1859 adaptation of Goethe's "Faust". One of the most popular operas for decades after it premiered, Gounod’s “Faust” took all the good story bits and set them to catchy tunes—all the while ignoring the philosophy that made the text an enduring classic. (In Germany, Gounod's "Faust" is sometimes billed as "Marguerite" to distinguish it from Goethe's original; its easy to imagine calling Heggie's opera "Ahab", given the way it rarely sounds the book's philosophical or spiritual depths, and the whale is never really seen.)

What a shame Heggie never really tried to capture in his music the messianic fervour with which Melville wrote “Moby-Dick”. With all the white-hot ambition and megalomania on stage, why not a musical parallel? Rhythms that intone "a sharp lance for Samuel Barber!" and chords that cry, "to the last, Giacomo Puccini, I stab at thee!" But unlike Melville, Heggie's artistic temperament is conservative and controlled. This is no doubt why he succeeds in America's world of non-profit commissions—his 2000 debut, "Dead Man Walking", is the most performed American opera in a generation.

All of the music was helped considerably by Patrick Summers in the orchestra pit, plus a cast of fine singers (the new opera house’s intimate horseshoe shape and clear acoustics also complemented the fine musicmaking). As Ahab, Ben Heppner sang with stentorian authority, complete with a convincing whale-bone pegleg. Likewise Leonard Foglia's state-of-the-art production, which mixed monochromatic video imagery with a dynamic array of old-fashioned masts, ropes and sails. It is for good reason that "Moby Dick" has been a bona-fide hit, with music that's easy on the ear without being dull, a star turn that delivers and a staging that genuinely wows. The applause at the curtain felt truly ovational, not just polite.
 
Yet this is not the music of Melville, but that of Jake Heggie. His “Moby-Dick” may lack a certain drive, but it seems to be the most successful new American opera in a decade. The work travels to Australia next year, and then to Calgary, Canada, San Diego and San Francisco, so opera goers around the world will be hearing it for years to come. Perhaps others will wisely set aside their hopes for a true adaptation of Melville's masterpiece, and allow themselves to enjoy a more simple evening of entertainment. 
 
(James C. Taylor is the host of "Theatre Talk", a radio programme on KCRW. He writes about theatre and opera for the Los Angeles Times and Opera Magazine. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was a Q&A with Francesca Zambello, an opera and theatre director. )