Most Januarys, Calgary Opera gives its audience a surprise. Sometimes it is its own new commission; as often, it is a Canadian premiere of an American opera that has gained a foothold in the standard repertoire.
This January, the company staged its co-produced Canadian premiere of San Franciscan Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, with librettist Gene Scheer’s excellent distillation of Herman Melville’s sprawling 19th-century novel about a megalomaniac’s obsession with revenge against his deep-sea nemesis.
Moby-Dick, an international co-production with five partners, is all about the hunt for the white whale, propelled by a libretto that is driven by the book’s human passions. Inevitably and wisely, Melville’s metaphysical speculations and encyclopedic expositions disappear in the blood and guts of the tale Scheer has rendered.
Calgary Opera patrons are faithful to the company’s commitment to new work, but no doubt Ben Heppner’s name on the bill in the lead role of Ahab helped fill the Jubilee Auditorium on Saturday evening. Unbelievably, Moby-Dick is Heppner’s first Canadian engagement in 17 years.
Wearing a strapped-on peg leg, forcing him to keep his balance on his one good limb with a cane, Heppner limped about the stage in full command. He sang Heggie’s vaguely contemporary-sounding vocal music assuredly, shaping his Ahab, which he debuted in Dallas in April 2010 and will sing again in San Diego in a few weeks, with as much stubborn fury as unexpected sensitivity to his men’s burdens. Cloaked in black, standing alone with a harpoon supporting him in one of the culminating scenes, Heppner radiated the aura of the flawed tragic hero he has conjured many times in his illustrious career. He owns this role.
Up against Ahab’s narcissism is Starbuck, the chief officer and a man of God. Baritone Brett Polegato hid in the shadow of neither Captain Ahab nor Heppner. Polegato’s aria at the end of Act One, the most traditional Puccini-like aria in the score, was uplifting. In Act Two, as Starbuck looks at Ahab asleep and wrestles with the temptation to shoot him dead, Polegato placed Heggie’s work into the long operatic tradition of agony well sung.
Tenor Colin Ainsworth played Greenhorn, a.k.a. Ishmael of Melville’s novel. Ainsworth’s touching aria in the final act, a meditation on the madness around him, helped to set up the calm before the final storm with some fine, relatively conventional operatic lyric effect. In the same vein, Ahab and Starbuck’s late duet, in which the first mate tries to persuade Ahab to go home to his family instead of pursuing his unassuageable hatred for the whale, poignantly set up the catastrophic final descent into the maelstrom, and here and in several other quieter moments, Heggie and Scheer evoked emotion as genuine as emotion can ever be in opera.
Bass baritone Justin Welsh’s exotic Queequeg had vocal heft, but also a vulnerability that gave his scenes with Ainsworth a sweet flavour of brotherly love. Soprano Lisa DiMaria, in the trouser role of Pip, sang solidly but could have made more of her role as innocent cabin boy and eventual broken child. The stage was hers to capture, and she didn’t fully take advantage.
When the visual focus isn’t on the high-tech images on the scrims, the stage is a lattice-work of ladders and ropes, and the men, principals and chorus alike, created many scenes amid the rigging that gave the production a convincingly seafaring energy.
In general, Heggie’s music is full of much martial thumping and blaring and is mostly colourful and dramatically helpful. Some have called Heggie’s compositional approach cinematic, and for this opera, which is full of exceptional digital effects and projected scenes of roiling ocean waves – Elaine McCarthy’s wondrous contribution – borrowing from Hollywood would seem appropriate. However his vocal writing tries too hard at times to sound modernly inaccessible, angular, and perversely anti-melodic, and that is not his strength.
Under conductor Joseph Mechavich, the Calgary Philharmonic played Heggie’s music supportively, and the 37-voice men’s chorus filled the stage with yeoman service.
Special to the Globe and Mail
- Calgary Opera
- Ben Heppner, tenor
- With the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra
- Conducted by Joseph Mechavich
- In Calgary on Saturday