Impressive Moby and Intriguing Butterfly in Dallas

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Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

I’ve recently returned from the 2010 Music Critics Association of North America meeting in Dallas, which included tickets to Jake Heggie’s new “Moby-Dick” (May 8) and Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” (May 9) by the Dallas Opera in the new Winspear Opera House.

'Moby Dick' world premiere production Dallas Opera (Karen Almond)
‘Moby Dick’ world premiere production Dallas Opera (Karen Almond)

I would count “Moby Dick” a success and certainly a major step forward for Heggie as a composer. He he’s made the piece feel unified, with many wonderful moments in the orchestration. The music holds interest and moves along with few uninteresting parts. The sections depicting the sea, both calm and in storm, owe something to Britten but have their own style and engaging form. The opera is paced well, except in several sections for secondary characters where the point had been made but the music carries on too long in the same vein.

I heard influences of John Adams (in a good way) in the repetitive motifs and motor rhythms. The vocal lines are often quite melodic (there’s one aria that is definitely “Puccinian”), but they also can be somewhat wandering and odd. The second act is something of a letdown, not building on the tension set up in the first act. The second act is more lyrical and introspective, and when Ahab’s confrontation with Moby finally arrives, the music and the staging do not live up to expectations for such a climatic moment. But overall, this is Heggie’s best work to date.

The physical production by Tony nominee Robert Brill (whose “Faust” design will be seen soon at the Met) contributes a great deal to the enjoyment, cleverly employing masts, sails, and ropes in ever changing patterns. Animated projections against scrims and backdrops are magical, depicting schematics of the ship, ocean waves or the starry night. There’s one transformation in which men are arrayed on the curved white backdrop as if on the ship’s sails, when, suddenly, projections put them all into whale boats moving around (and eventually being torn asunder) in a truly breathtaking effect. The use of colors and shadows are especially dramatic.  Leonard Foglia’s direction was tight and confident.

Ben Heppner looked the part (complete with peg leg) and sang strongly without cracks or rough patches, but the voice was not particularly large or soaring. Additionally, he could only manage to move very methodically with the peg leg, making some scenes less effective when he couldn’t storm off or move menacingly when called for. The best voices (and actors) were tenor Stephen Costello as a sympathetic Greenhorn (only identified as Ishmael in the last line of the opera), baritone Morgan Smith as the practical Starbuck, and bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu as the odd islander Queequeg. Lemalu and Costello’s sweet duet of friendship, dreaming of returning to Queequeg’s home, was quite moving and one of the opera’s best moments.

The opera will be seen in coming seasons at San Diego, San Francisco, Calgary and Adelaide. Anyone interested in contemporary opera should plan to see it.

The “Madame Butterfly” was a Francesco Zambello production, first introduced to Dallas a decade ago, but it looked fresh in the new house. Anyone requiring a traditional setting and staging would likely have been put off by this version. But it falls squarely into the same category as the Minghella Met staging and the Lamos version at New York City Opera, with much use of abstraction, a wide range of colors and minimal furnishings. If those two productions appealed, then I suggest this one would also.

The most unusual aspect is the setting of the beginnings of Act I and Act II in Sharpless’ consulate office. No, that’s not what the libretto says, but Zambello has thought it all through so that it basically works. I was convinced of the concept and delighted in all the little details: secretaries at old-fashioned typewriters and file drawers, the waiting area for the local populace arriving for various business. It seemed logical that Goro was showing Pinkerton a model of his Japanese house and that Pinkerton was waiting there to have the wedding ceremony quickly dispatched. Having Butterfly and her family come to the consulate to transact the wedding made her seem even more under the control of men and foreigners. I especially liked how the walls of the consulate disappeared, revealing the Bonze in his saffron robes on a huge statue of Buddha.

The Act I love duet and the Act II preparation for Pinkerton’s return were staged as if at Butterfly’s house but only suggested with shade-like hangings and lots of colors and shadows in the lighting. There were no trees, but Suzuki, Trouble and Butterfly brought in baskets of petals to scatter about (just as in the Met and NYCO productions) while more fell from the sky. I found it a lovely effect, as the three whirled around in them.

Act III followed Act II without a break, the pre-dawn music used to mime the courtship of Pinkerton and Kate, adding a bit of back-story. The gangplank being lowered, with Pinkerton and Kate coming off the ship, was also innovative. The finale reminded me of the Met version with a large red silk coming down to represent blood, making a barrier between Pinkerton and Butterfly.
As Butterfly, Adina Nitescu leaned towards a Callas sound, with no attempts to lighten it into a “juvenile” voice. I liked her strong tone, especially in the most dramatic moments, and also how she sometimes almost spoke some of the lines. She did have a little trouble holding onto long high notes, coming off several just shy of their full value, but she seems in full control of color and inflection.

Nitescu seemed to be shaping the characterization very purposefully as a woman who knew her fate was already sealed, taking only temporary joy in a marriage she knew could not last, despite hoping it might. Her minimal gestures and focused demeanor indicated she had already given into fate. I found it a convincing alternative to the usual fragile characterization.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Pinkerton was cad-ish but not totally unsympathetic, expressing believable remorse in Act III. His big, hall-filling voice was not particularly Italianate but certainly was “American,” capable of all the climatic passages. Maria Zifchak’s Suzuki, already well established from the Met production, was extremely moving and often quite amusing, especially her all-out attack on Goro in Act II. James Weston’s singing of Sharpless was not quite powerful enough but the basic sound was pleasant. He was directed to be less sympathetic towards Butterfly but still had a rounded character.

Garnett Bruce’s restaging of the original Zambello direction was very detailed and pointed, impressive in that all the singers seemed to know exactly what they were doing at every moment. The staging held the audience’s attention throughout, with many striking moments.

The biggest disappointment was Graeme Jenkins’ conducting. He had a lot of intriguing ideas for many little moments and could whip up big climaxes where needed. But he seemed to want a smooth flow and narrow dynamic range most of the time, making many passages ineffective and bland. Worse, he got slower and slower as the night went on, letting a lot of steam out of the last act. He didn’t seem to have a feeling for the overall architecture of the work. Despite the conducting minuses, I enjoyed the production very much and would gladly see it again (but with another leader in the pit).

The Winspear Opera House was very impressive and in my two different orchestra seats, the sound was clear and warm. The 2010-11 Dallas season has some unusual fare, including a particularly intriguing sounding Boris.