The Whale, An Androgynous Adventuress, and a Chekhovian Professor
By Myron Meisel
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) has always resisted definitive interpretation because it is so endlessly amenable to it. For all the massive detail and penchant for epic digression, it’s almost a Rorschach test of themes: one can project nearly any subjective reaction upon it, and while it will stick, it will never suffice to give its allusiveness its due. Its through-line offers intense drama, even as its structure redirects the reader to the netherlands of its prolix, multiple visions.
So very tough to adapt, yet so magnetically compelling to attempt, Moby-Dick elicits a missionary zeal to conquer it, not unlike the mad ambition of Ahab’s unwavering drive for revenge, and because it is so essentially elusive, no one ever quite succeeds. In retrospect, if one concedes the loss of intellectual heft, the 1956 John Huston-Ray Bradbury movie seems more than ever an honorable attempt (and Gregory Peck not nearly so wooden as contemporary opinion insisted: virtually no one else has been better, and overall I much prefer his Ahab to his mythically amorphous Atticus Finch).
The most fruitful approach has generally been to approach the novel as either subject or object, to explore our obsessive fascination with it. Rinde Eckert’s memorable show, And God Created Great Whales (which played here first at 24th Street Theater in 2009 and again at REDCAT in 2011), posited a composer attempting to make an opera of the damn thing before his memory disintegrates. David Schweizer directed, and in 2013 also staged a hugely satisfying one-night stand fantasia of personal reactions to Melville’s text at the Broad Stage, My Moby Dick. And Bernard Herrmann of Welles and Hitchcock fame took a credible stab at a cantata out of the material before his movie career. (I haven’t encountered Laurie Anderson’s last-century contemplation, which has apparently never been available apart from her own live performances.)
At the same time, Jake Heggie, one of the most popularly successful of contemporary opera composers (Dead Man Walking) and prolific fashioner of durably lyrical songs, collaborated with librettist Gene Scheer (who also has worked with Tobias Picker and Jennifer Higdon) to tackle the great beast. Debuting in Dallas in 2010 and subsequently mounted in San Francisco and San Diego, released on DVD and broadcast on PBS in 2013, their savvy effort finally makes port in Los Angeles courtesy of L.A. Opera, one night after the pair’s newest piece, Great Scott, a comedy, world premiered, again in Dallas.
Heggie and Scheer shrewdly split the balance between accessible melody and clear plot drive on the one hand, and preserving the innate strangeness of the material on the other. Essentially a roadshow remount of director Leonard Foglia’s original conception (as videotaped) with a few cast changes, the production affords ample opportunities for the impressive spectacle that opera audiences crave at their temples of culture.
All the action takes place at sea: computer graphic projections suggest the listing of the Pequod (we’re both a long way from Tron, still not so far), with eye-staggering vertiginous scenic transformations from square rigging (e.g., Ahab lashed to the mast) into the vulnerable harpooning boats. The chorus (the crew) are Grand Opera numerous, amplified by persuasively well-muscled acrobat-climbers who scamper about the ever-shifting set.
Their conceit parallels Melville in that they cast the dual protagonists (and duelling perspectives), Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris, the Met’s recent Siegfried) and “Greenhorn” (Joshua Guerrero), who does not assume his own name of Ishmael until the climax, as two tenors. First mate and Christian conscience Starbuck (Morgan Smith) contrasts with his baritone, and the sublimely civilized savage Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana) a deeper bass-baritone, themselves contrasting voices of reason contrasting with the madness of Ahab and the shape-shifting fecklessness of “Greenhorn.” (Pip is played as a trouser role by soprano Jacqueline Echols, providing welcome vocal variety, along with the requisite peculiar ambiguity.)
Heggie’s music is consistently well-wrought, if often reminiscent of well-worn compositional stratagems. It does bring out a full range of aural effects from the orchestra, conducted with James Conlon’s customary empathy. Idiomatically old-hat for a 21st century sensibility, he’s leagues better than the late Daniel Catan, if more voguish than vanguard. For all its readily recognizable motifs, Heggie tends toward underscoring and programmatic representation, providing a supporting bed for the relatively daring ambitions of the libretto, except when giving full rein to his undeniable lyric gifts.
Scheer preserves a surprising amount of Melville’s deliberately archaic diction, which happens to sing more convincingly (with Heggie’s flexibly responsive settings) than it reads. He also feints at a goodly number of the novel’s themes, although they are most often invoked rather than developed or expressed in musical language. Scheer seems most struck by the novel’s defiance of authority and its legitimacy, in Ahab’s case that of God, and for everyone else, the hierarchy of ship’s command. Dominion is perceived as arbitrary, destructive vanity, for both master and subordinate. A fresher perspective on Ahab’s vengeful odyssey questions what Melville’s time considered the manifest destiny of Man to hunt and kill in the “civilizing” role of subduing Nature and, for that matter, all incarnations of the “other.”
As the increasing incantation of philosophical conundrums pile up in the second act, the material grows progressively more intriguing and provocative, but the race toward the climactic confrontation with the mutably symbolic white whale becalms rather than crests. There may be decisive dramatic action, though without any cathartic resolution. The coup of ending the opera with the book’s famous first words (“Call me Ishmael”) must suffice, the narrator assuming his role as unreliable storyteller by claiming his identity as witness. (Aptly, the most moving aria is a duet of kinship betwixt Greenhorn and Queequeg, each hanging from their separate ropes manning their respective masts, as Greenhorn dreams someday of being taught all the names of everything human and natural on Q’s tiny native island, reminiscent of Adam and Eve in Eden, part of his quest to define who he is, and finding his answer in a shared male bond.)
The larger creative hubris, of course, lies in risking comparison less with an intractable literary masterpiece than with Britten’s maritime Melville, Billy Budd, a more manageable though no less slippery property, which stands astride the 20th century operatic repertory as prodigiously as the archetypal Great American novel itself. For respite, Heggie and Scheer are finishing their newest opus for next year in Houston: a Parnassus of altogether different material, It’s a Wonderful Life.
A Song of Isabelle Eberhardt
As a vital corrective to its core audience’s conservatism, L.A. Opera continued its consistently wonderful Off Grand series with a superlative mounting at REDCAT of hard-charging composer Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Death of Isabelle Eberhardt, produced by the invaluable Beth Morrison Projects, originally presented at The Kitchen in New York in 2012. In presenting only its second full production, L.A. Opera fulfills its larger institutional mission as a cultural incubator of newer work.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the adventuress Isabelle Eberhardt has something of the qualities of a Great White Whale herself: a life of such convulsively original self-creation that she can be appropriated to accommodate any conceivable perception.
Eberhardt, a Swiss woman who lost her family before the age of 21, decamped in 1899 for a nomadic life in Algeria. Alone, often dressed and passing as a man, she wandered the desert on horseback, converted to Islam, married, took lovers, joined a Sufi order (one of the first Westerners to witness some of their secret rites), survived both an attempted assassination and a failed suicide pact before drowning in a flash flood at 27. She published little in her lifetime.
Her surviving memoirs, incomplete in fragments rescued from the waters, ensure that any portrait of her own ideas of herself will remain tantalizingly partial. A proto-feminist completely out of her own time, who bedevils doctrinal strictures, she can as easily be apprehended as either emblematic or apostate to nearly any ideological posture held in own era of splintered cohorts of conviction. She seems beyond modern in her determined self-reinvention, yet in her own Victorian era something of a throwback to the convulsive Romanticism of a century earlier. There is no comparable figure of such legendary dimensions in the gallery of heroines of the period, a nonpareil role-model utterly of her own creation and utterly resistant to confident comprehension.
What a splendidly overdue subject for musical meditation and exotic spectacle, uniquely well-suited to a composer appropriately enthralled by the Philip Glass of Satyagraha, his greatest (and most spiritual) opera. Mazzoli, at 35 the youngest living composer ever to be performed by the L.A. Opera, proves an active and sensitive collaborator, here with co-librettist Royce Vavrek, director-choreographer Gia Forakis, filmmaker Stephen Taylor, originating mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and the ever-estimable NOW Ensemble. (The same musical forces issued an effective CD in 2012, though like any good operatic work, it takes on so much more dimensional life live.)
Mazzoli sinuously threads her ostinatos through layers of ambiguity and restless exploration entirely in tune with her subject. The complex interplay of costume, gesture, projection and design are perhaps the most subjectively satisfying multimedia seen in the REDCAT space since Cloud Eye Control’s Half Life in January. Fischer interprets her outsized role from a place deep within, having in part inspired the music for her voice. Perhaps the lexicon of arm gestures provided her could have been more varied, but the mystery and dumbfounding non-conformity of Eberhardt sustains the novelty of the portrayal, a character stubbornly resistant to being pinned down, or conventionally “understood”.
In particular, Taylor’s most stimulating film components revel in their consciously scurrilous spuriousness, representing a collage of appropriated alternate visual generalizations where no true image is possible and mixmastering them into a calculated confusion of puzzled and suggestive wonderment. It manages to reflect our own anxieties about the material without ever compelling a predetermined response.
This may not be a piece for the ages, yet it is most definitely one that speaks effectively to and of our moment, opera as a vividly alive art.
Finding the Heart of Serebryakov
I have little to add to Steven Leigh Morris’s ruminations on the Antaeus Uncle Vanya, having been similarly weaned on Chekhov. As a pre-adolescent, I was fated to be smitten when my first encounter was a television broadcast of the famous Chichester Vanya, starring Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier. Ten years later, I hitchhiked as a student from Cambridge to Manhattan to arrive just in time for a matinee curtain of the Mike Nichols production at Circle in the Square, with a mind-boggling cast of George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, Lillian Gish, Barnard Hughes and Cathleen Nesbitt.
Just as the instant adaptation has proven flexible to changing times and language, so too I was struck by how malleable the play can be to the different stages of life. As a young man, I related intensely to the acute sense of being unloved, as manifested in Vanya, and most particularly, Sonya. Could that callow fellow ever have imagined identifying, a half-century later, with the pontificating professor, recognizing in oneself not only the suffering souls, but also the insufferable crank?
Moby-Dick, L.A. Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.org, November 7 at 7:30pm, 15 at 2pm, 19 at 7:30pm, 22 at 2pm & 28 at 7:30pm. Running time: Three hours
Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, L.A. Opera Off Grand at REDCAT (closed). Running time: 70 minutes
Uncle Vanya, Antaeus Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; through December 6. http://antaeus.org