Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Embracing the Cannibal" (on Gene Scheer's and Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick)

embracing the cannibal
by Douglas Messerli

Gene Scheer (libretto) and Jake Heggie (composer) Moby-Dick / Los Angeles, LAOpera, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / the production Howard Fox and I saw was a matinee on Sunday, November 15, 2015

Unlike Melville’s original fiction, Jake Heggie’s operatic rendition of Moby-Dick begins not on land with Ismael’s bedroom (and homoerotic) encounter with Queequeg, but at night aboard the Pequod, where the heavily tattooed “cannibal” is praying in a real Samoan chant that opera librettist Gene Scheer uncovered. The man Melville calls Ishmael is here an unnamed “Greenhorn,” (a minor figure that is mentioned only a couple of times in Melville’s version), a beginner sailor who has never before set foot on a whaling ship. Indeed, this “Greenhorn” is hardly yet a full human being, but, as the etymology of that word suggests, is like a young animal with immature horns. It is perhaps no accident, moreover, that the word “Greenhorn” has long colloquially been used to describe a recently arrived immigrant, for that is also what this young buck is, a being new to the world he which he has suddenly set foot; and Heggie and Scheer’s work is very much centered around his discovery of and education about that terrifying brave new world.
     When awakened by the noise of Queequeg’s night chant, Greenhorn (Joshua Guerrero) is angry, damning all things religious and decrying his inability to sleep not only because of the cannibal’s chants, because of the raucous and  heavy beat of waves and, we suspect, the peg-leg stomp down the night-time halls of the yet unseen captain Ahab.

     The Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris) we soon discover, challenging his sailors to spot the great white whale who has given him “the dead stump he stands on,” and promising to award the first man who spots the white monster with a Spanish doubloon, is very much Melville’s Lucifer-like figure who not only dares to follow this rare species across the seas, but swears he would “strike the sun if it insulted me!” While the men such as Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana), Stubb (Malcolm MacKenzie), Flask (Matthew O’Neill), and Greenhorn have joined on in order to kill the ordinary black-faced whales, bringing back oil and blubber to their Nantucket homes in order to earn a living, the mad Ahab is interested only in his revengeful chase of the leviathan, and allows his men only one whale capture after Starbuck (Morgan Smith) intercedes, much to his own endangerment, on their behalf. 
     It is appropriate that nearly all the lines Ahab speaks in this opera are taken directly from the book. For Ahab, the center of Melville’s work, is a creature complete, filled with ego and a fiery hate so large that he, at least in literary terms, cannot be reconceived. To alter Ahab’s words or behavior would be to sink the entire Pequod and its inhabitants.

     The opera’s creators, on the other hand, are not at all afraid of creating new situations and language for other of the works characters, paring down the leviathan-like structure of the actual work to make it legible and viable as a three-hour musical performance. Heggie, as in his other compositions, is an able composer of driving whorls of lush tonalities, and—except for a strange second act quietude at the very moment when one might expect the him to lash himself to the mast of Wagner’s wild brass flourishes—he offers an unsettling yet beauteous series of musical interludes, some of which, as critics have already noted, might be at home in a Broadway musical by Bernstein and Sondheim or even on the Hollywood movie screen. Fortunately the composer, along with director James Conlon’s impatient drive of the orchestra, never quite lets his music devolve entirely into those more populist compositions, even if there are moments when both composer and conductor almost dare to put their heart upon their sleeves.
      In part, this is necessary to convey what is now at the heart of this new conception of the white whale story, Greenhorn’s gradual transformation from an indifferent young boy to a man who, particularly through Starbuck’s moral pleadings with Ahab, Stubb’s joyous humor, and Queequeg’s love of the people and world around him, help to mold him into a full human being who finally comes to understand both the evil and the beauty of his life voyage.

      If through the tribulations, near drowning, and later madness of the cabin boy Pip (Jacqueline Echols) shows us that none of these important qualities can save one from the madness of fate, the child does show this opera’s hero that survival is possible and, that, at least, he may have an opportunity to begin a new life if he is able to finish the voyage.
    Heggie and Scheer reveal these new possibilities most clearly in the scene composed, apparently early on in their writing, in Greenhorn’s and Queequeg’s duet upon the mast whereupon Greenhorn—having finally come to realize the failure of Western logic and values—becomes determined to embrace the “cannibal” and his life in a promised friendship (symbolically a kind of marriage) where he hopes to learn the new language of Prince Queequeg’s paradisiacal homeland. Even though both the older sailor and the audience know it is perhaps a non-existent territory, “somewhere to the west, somewhere to the south,” Greenhorn is willing to enter into it—wandering immigrant that he is—and come to intimately know it. The song can only remind one, a bit, of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story, where both characters try to imagine a world completely unlike the one in which they are currently trapped. 
     The opera’s creators immediately end the dream, however, with Queequeg taking sick and, as Greenhorn takes him below, forecasting his own death. It is no accident that Ahab is willing to take Greenhorn’s place upon the mast: he will steer the ship through his blinded vision no matter what storms the Pequod must suffer.

     Just when Ahab seems, beyond any redemption, however, both Melville and the opera’s creators show him, in his on deck duet with Starbuck, to still have a few human scruples and doubts. Again, Heggie seems almost willing to dip again into something like a Broadway musical number that explores this temporarily softer side of the work’s villain, as, on a day of “a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky,” Ahab confesses to the desolation of solitude his life has been, recalling his wife back in Nantucket telling their son after his noonday nap of “cannibal old me.” 
    For a few moments Starbuck is ready also to embrace his “cannibal,” as he and his captain and for a few minutes the two sing, much like Greenhorn and Queequeg, about returning together to the world they have left behind. And again, Ahab, looking into Starbuck’s eye sees a better world, a place for them where there might be new possibilities. 
     But Ahab, of course, is no lover, but a man of hate determined to accept what he believes is his fate, which can only result in the destruction of him and his sailors.
     It is in the final chase of the whale that Heggie’s Moby Dick seems to momentarily to lose steam, perhaps because the focus on these moments of hope have been so rapturous that the necessarily driven melody of destruction and death results in a sort of let-down.

     I can only salute the authors and designer Robert Brill for not creating a cinematic white whale to rise up out the backdrop; yet in its absence—left as we are wondering whether or not Ahab really has spotted his all-consuming and monstrous god—we find it nearly impossible to watch conscience and love be sucked into the vortex of meaningless destruction. And the music, it appears, can simply not live up to our feelings of that loss. 
     Even though Greenhorn survives, metaphorically buoyed up in by the very death of his lover in that man’s coffin, Heggie is not Wagner, and his transfiguration of Greenhorn into a new human being, Ishmael, does not completely uplift us even while the hero rises up to prow of what we know can only be a better ship of life.
      For all that, Hegge and Scheer have created such an enormously entertaining musical allegory, that I will be willing to share their voyage again and again.

Los Angeles, November 17, 2015

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