In the Beginning Was the Word: Aspects of the Libretto

Whale-hunters in the Dallas Opera production of Moby-Dick. Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Matthew Gurewitsch

Vol. 33, 2011

 

[Gene Sheer’s libretto Moby-Dick] ends just as Ishmael is born into consciousness as a man with a yarn to spin. “Who are you, lad?,” Captain Gardiner asks, scooping the lone survivor from the sea. “Call me Ishmael,” he replies as the curtain falls, ready to take up his pen.

The echo from the novel has its undeniable elegance, but is this really the moment for literary games? Few audience members today will have pursued their Bible studies in sufficient depth to shudder at the speaker’s identification with a pariah. (T. Walter Herbert, president of the Melville Society, suggests we imagine a contemporary American novel opening with the words, “Call me Saddam.”) And does the hatching of a writer—even this lone survivor, spared to tell us the fate of Promethean Man’s shipwreck on the cliffs of a Manichaean cosmos—really strike the chord our spirits yearn for in the final cadence of this story? Consider, too, the absurdity, outside the pages of The Pilgrim’s Progress, of a character whose name and condition in life are identical: a Christian named Christian, a worldly wiseman named Worldly Wiseman, a butler named Butler. To my ear, the name Greenhorn, used for a greenhorn, strikes a tinny, naively symbolic note, especially since the word sounds so unlike a real name. (Searching the phone books of a half dozen major American cities, I found a total of three listings for “Greenhorn,” at two addresses in Moreno Valley, California, a bedroom community in the so-called Inland Empire east of Los Angeles.) [….]

What lingers in memory is most of all [the composer] Heggie’s unending sweep of water music: long-spun swells that ebb and flow like the heartbeat of some vast living creature, spells of deathly calm, outbursts of unfettered fury. The shanties add a homespun vigor, just as one would want them to. For the principals, Heggie found voices that make them real: Ahab’s oratory, so tense and wild; Queequeg’s chant, scarcely articulate; Starbuck’s straight-arrow plainspokenness. The only female voice—a lucky inspiration—belongs to Pip, the cabin boy; it is lyrical, unearthly, unmoored. Ishmael (let’s call him that) and Queequeg have two striking duets. The first opens the opera on a clashing, comic note, as Queequeg’s chthonic prayers interfere with Ishmael’s attempt to get a good night’s sleep. The second—chaste, dreamy, and romantic—is heard in the second act, when the odd couple thrown together by Fortune shares a watch in the starry night. Of the many deft strokes of musical stagecraft that punctuate the action, I will mention only the very first: the irregular thump of Ahab’s peg leg, announcing his presence overhead long before he shows himself to the crew.

 

 

 

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