Moby-Dick Rides Opera's New Wave; DTC's Salesman Has The Goods
Dallas Opera's triumphant world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick is so un-opera in the traditional sense that it's easier to describe it as new epic cinema in 3-D. With live actors. And lots of singing. About three hours' worth, all aboard the Pequod in search of the mythical Great White Whale introduced to American lit by Herman Melville in 1851.
Film-like qualities are all over this production. Visually, they're in designer Elaine McCarthy's dazzling computer-generated images of sea and sky. Projected onto a curved wall of pale planks and the massive scrims of designer Robert Brill's nautical set, McCarthy's graphic depictions of roiling waves and floating cloud formations shift angles and throw perspectives into unexpected places. A swirl of stars in a pitch-black sky slowly connects the dots to form a celestial map, then turns into outlines of masts and sails on a towering whaling vessel headed directly toward the audience. Crewmen (including 15 rock climbers hired from area clubs) spider up rigging and hang off blocks and shrouds high above the Pequod's deck. When they set off in launches to hunt whales, they stay, hung one above the other, on that wall, blue outlines of three small boats projected around them. Stunning.
McCarthy's lavish graphics, complemented by Donald Holder's crisp, vivid lighting, send the viewer high above the ship one moment and into the sea below the next (the whale's eye view). But most of Moby-Dick (directed by Leonard Foglia; conducted by Patrick Summers) happens on the steeply raked deck among the 60 men led by deranged Captain Ahab (heroic tenor Ben Heppner, fitted with a peg leg). Ahab is obsessed with the beast that took his limb. He'll harpoon Moby-Dick, he sings, until blood gushes from the whale's blowhole "like chimney smoke" (the libretto by Gene Scheer stays loyal to Melville). The men, restless to kill other whales for valuable oil, eventually are drawn into Ahab's revenge fantasy, despite an attempt by first mate Starbuck (dashingly handsome baritone Morgan Smith) to convince Ahab to turn the ship around and head home to Nantucket.
Sung in English, Moby-Dick will be compared by opera purists to classics by Puccini and Wagner. But those of us who've heard more movie scores than operas relate Heggie's soaring, romantic themes and orchestral flourishes (or elegant lack of them) to some great film soundtracks. Throughout this opera are hints of Dimitri Tiomkin (Giant, The Alamo), Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind), Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago), Bernard Herrmann (Psycho's screaming strings) and John Williams (Heggie just couldn't resist Jaws' two-note shark motif).
Opera doesn't require sensitive acting, but among the leads in this one, the most powerful singers also bring subtle emotional notes to their roles. Duets shared by the young Ishmael character, Greenhorn (tenor Stephen Costello), and the pagan South Sea Islander, Queequeg (bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu), are as close to love songs as Moby-Dick gets. In the "trouser role" as cabin boy Pip, soprano Talise Trevigne has a light, childish energy that offsets the heaviness of the otherwise all-male cast, though the bit that has Pip "swimming" across the stage on a wire like a waterlogged Peter Pan is ill-conceived.
And is there a whale? No. And yes. In the climactic scene that claims the lives of Ahab and most of the Pequod crew, we get a brief glimpse, thanks to those cinematic effects, of American fiction's largest mammal, life-size and terrifying. Too bad he couldn't take a curtain call.
Across the street from the Winspear, Dallas Theater Center's production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a harder sell than a new grand opera about a Great White Whale. The night I saw the play, there were 150 patrons in the 575-seat Wyly Theatre.
But whatever reasons you thought you had for not wanting to spend an evening with this 1949 tragedy about a 60-year-old man losing his mind and the only job he's ever had, forget them. You must see it. Go tonight. It isn't just the best production yet on the main stage at the Wyly (the theater opened last October), it's the best big piece of drama by DTC since Kevin Moriarty took the job as artistic director of the company three years ago.
The actors, all but one local, are exceptionally strong. In the lead as Willy Loman is New York import Jeffrey DeMunn, wearing padding under his rumpled brown suit but still recognizable from appearances on TV's Law & Order and in the films The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. From his entrance, dropping two heavy sample cases as he returns home from the road, DeMunn's Willy Loman is stooped and fragile. DeMunn is an actor of slight build anyway—more Dustin Hoffman than Brian Dennehy—and he shrinks further as the weight of memories and delusions bear down. At one point in the second act, DeMunn sinks to his knees, dwarfed by the vast expanse of black floor around him. It is a sad and stunning image, one of many in this production. (Scenic designer Daniel Ostling, keeping the large space free of clutter, pulls off one visual knockout after another.)
This Salesman is worth seeing for DeMunn; he's that good. But surrounding and supporting him are 11 other fine actors, some DTC company members, some drama students from Southern Methodist University. Under the direction of Amanda Dehnert, this cast does surgically precise, intensely connected ensemble work.
Miller's play presents staggering challenges. Willy's sons Biff and Happy (played by DTC company actors Matthew Gray and Cedric Neal) jump in flashbacks from their 30s to their teens. Willy and wife Linda (DTC company member Sally Nystuen Vahle) also turn back the clock, looking and behaving 20 years younger than in most of the play. Vahle handles the transitions particularly well, taking a fresh, quiet but firm approach as the one member of the Loman family who lives in the here and now. In the "attention must be paid" speech, pleading for some kindness toward Willy, she is like no other Linda I've ever seen. She's better.
The only gimmick here is the "colorblind casting" of African-American actors as son Happy and as Willy's wealthy older brother Ben (Hassan El-Amin). But Miller himself claimed that these characters exist only in Willy's mind. So why not make them literally and visually "other"?
As a timeless piece of theater, everything Death of a Salesman says about the empty dreams and mental crackups of men like Willy Loman, and the frustrations sons like Biff have with a father's expectations, still resonates. It is the kind of play, as Miller once wrote, that puts into words the "unsingable heartsong the ordinary man may feel but never utter."
Something beautiful and extraordinary happens between actors and audience in this play at DTC. Without any of the high-tech gadgetry that can make a whaling ship and its crew sink beneath the sea before our eyes, but with plain words spoken by people on a nearly empty stage, we are privileged to witness what Miller called "the naked and direct contemplation of man." Sometimes that is spectacle enough.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.