Monday, January 29, 2018

An inventive and powerful re-imagining of Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick at Utah Opera

As well as celebrating its 40th season, much attention has fallen on Utah Opera recently as its new production of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s 2011 operatic work, Moby-Dick, took to the stage. Based on Herman Melville’s far-reaching 1851 novel - not entirely well-received at the time but going on to become one of literature’s classic tales - Moby-Dick is a thematically fertile work that Heggie and Scheer generously capture in their compellingly interpreted opera.

In director Kristine McIntyre’s hands, it has been raised with affecting force, mild instructiveness and expressive clout. It’s the work’s first reimagining since it premiered at Dallas Opera in 2010 - then Adelaide in 2011 where I witnessed its grand swell of artistic power - and, in this reincarnation, stands as a glorious achievement for Utah Opera.

Roger Honeywell as Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick
An opera in which no romance plays out as part of its story, at its core is the idea of distorted perceptions and blind-sighted obsession, brought on by a vengeance that leads to an increased inability to act with either rationality or humanity. That alone indirectly gives the work much resonance in contemporary times in a free country perceived to be under the authority of misjudged and arrogant administration. When we perceive our own times, much can be attributed to the awful consequences of ill-suited individuals in power. Then again, that has always been.

Commander of the whaling ship Pequod, Captain Ahab sails on a mission to murder Moby-Dick, the legendary Goliathan white whale that severed his leg on a previous expedition. After persisting in his maniacal bubble for month on end, both Ahab’s small whaleboat and the Pequod, an outstanding but sometimes sticky microcosm of cultural diversity, are struck and destroyed by the whale in a tragedy that points to irresponsible mass-murder of his crew as a result of ugly determination.

The integrity of Melville’s evocative, seductive and inventive style shines in Scheer’s text, guided by Heggie’s varietal and accomplished orchestral score that contains the dramatic, emotive, sensuous and mystic elements residing within it.

Conductor Joseph Mechavich’s especially sympathetic, caressing and noble handling of the score left no doubt that Heggie’s work has the potential to find a prominent place in the repertoire. If the reading demanded more, it would be in extracting the full brunt of waves of tumultuous sound that impact the musical landscape. It wasn’t as if the resources weren’t available. The 70-plus musicians of the Utah Symphony Orchestra at his disposal had the expertise and played superbly throughout its two acts.

Roger Honeywell, Musa Ngqungwana and Joshua Dennis
What is evident and achieved in McIntyre’s concept is a smart and clear-sighted effectiveness that elucidates the psychological aspect. Her vision is bolstered by designer Erhard Rom’s marvellous singular diagrammatic set of navigational maps and astronomical charts that wrap around and contextualise man in his universe, made all the more striking by Marcus Dilliard’s illustrative and detailed lighting. Rom imaginatively defines the Pequod by its main mast that provides a lookout and perch for a handful of poignantly performed arias and duets and a cutout whaleboat that swivels about as a vulnerable element on the sea. Jessica Jahn’s rigorously researched costumes both unite and individualise one and all in their roles and wear the grime of labour and time.

Importantly, the performance was sung with enormous strength and understanding in a work that heightens the complexity of drawn characters. In a commanding multifaceted portrayal, Roger Honeywell’s hugely buttressed tenor and dramatic application perfectly suited the obsessed Captain Ahab as he deteriorated into maniacal doom. Ahab is a demanding sing of seeming Wagnerian proportion and Honeywell effortlessly lasted the distance all the way to the final encounter with Moby-Dick’s huge menacing eye while embodying a captivating villain-hero ambiguity.

Honeywell was joined by all-round talented principals, including charismatic baritone David Adam Moore’s rational and austere first mate Starbuck, challenger to Ahab’s decisions and confronted with the moral predicament that comes as he points a gun at the unaware Ahab. Warm and honeyed tenor Joshua Dennis brings an endearing sensitivity to Greenhorn and poignantly closes the opera, as the novel begins, with “Call me Ishmael”.

Joshua Dennis as Greenhorn and Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg 
Another formidable presence is broad cavernous bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana’s empathetic Queequeg who brought many significant and touching moments - particularly alongside Dennis in their developing mateship - as did soprano Jasmine Habersham who impressed to no end when she sailed high above the crew in divine voice as young Pip. The happy-go-lucky second mate Stub and third mate Flask were characterfully created by rich baritone Craig Irvin and penetrating tenor Joseph Gaines respectively, with the sturdy and authoritative bass-baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo also impressing as a fitting Captain Gardiner.

They were surrounded by a hearty-voiced 30-strong chorus of seamen who brought great individuality and dynamism to their parts. Amongst them blended four athletic dancers who added well-considered choreographed muscularity to the picture.

The whole outfit supposedly has the capability to pack into two sea containers, therefore making it an easy task mounting in other houses the production has been co-produced with, and beyond. Next up, in March, Moby-Dick will be presented by Pittsburgh Opera with Opera San José, Chicago Opera Theatre and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu also on the itinerary - a powerful work that has the ability to not only nourish a seasoned opera goer’s passion but, in its dramatic accessibility, also attract a newcomer’s attention. Thankfully, there are opportunities ahead to promote it.

Utah Opera
Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City
Until 28th January, 2018.

Production Photos: courtesy of Utah Opera

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Jonathan Miller's comeback contemporary hammed-up Così fan tutte revs up at Seattle Opera

Mozart and da Ponte’s La scuola degli amanti or The School for Lovers, the subtitle of the two-act opera buffa, Così fan tutte (1790), never fails to add a little playful but oft-unpalatable sting to the subject of love and courtship. Its story of fidelity put to the test is easily unchained from any locked-in historical setting but, guided by its blissful music that builds circumstance with emotive beauty and vitality, the key to its success lies in its ability to balance the comic with the poignant.

Tuomas Katajala, Ginger and Marina Costa-Jackson and Craig Verm

There’s much to chew over in Seattle Opera’s vibrantly portrayed revival of director and designer Jonathan Miller’s production - premiered in 1995 at Covent Garden and previously seen in Seattle in 2006 - this time by director Harry Fehr in his company debut. It’s funny, and it should be, it’s daring, contemporary, sung with appealing character and hammed-up to the hilt. Fehr keeps the plot buzzing forward with bags of antics that his agile opening night cast did a strong show of, though precariously so, as it wasn't consistently transferred in attentiveness to ensemble singing.

Having been re-staged in many European and American opera houses, it even has the look of re-mountable ease. Once it gets underway, it gives neither high sophistication to nor a specific placing that the few props - a pile of cushions no end of free-falling takes place on, a mirror and a few period chairs and settee - couldn’t have achieved in front of an expansive off-white curtain as the first scene begins with. It’s in associate designer Cynthia Savage’s clever use of costumes that the contemporary, seamed with lashings of irky stereotypical flavour, is projected.

Marina Costa-Jackson and Ginger Costa-Jackson 
Adding to that, Johnathan Dean’s English captions are given a modern breath and tweaked with city-specific references to rev up the local audience. Born in Seattle, Starbucks gets a high recommendation as Despina steals a taste and mention of the hip neighbourhood of Ballard inspires the disguises to come.

As pupils in this school for lovers, the high-heeled glamour that sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella present is less than skin deep. They’re not particularly tasteful as they pursue life with their self-conscious, self-confident picture of celebrity fashioning. That makes a reasonable premise for not recognising their lovers in disguise, portrayed by two rather bumbling simps, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who come across rather more like skanky cashed-up bogans than hip.

Two pairs of lovers alternate through the season run. On opening night, sisters in real life, Marina Costa-Jackson and Ginger Costa-Jackson provide the panache and cheek that characterise Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s non-stop deployment of highly honed feminine ammunition. Both sopranos sing with richness and depth, Marina in luscious creamy tones, Ginger in darker tinted threads - and the two blend deliciously. Marina reels in one of the most vocally satisfying highlights with Act 1’s "Come scoglio" but an even more melting moment comes with deep canyons of heart in Act 2’s "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona".

As their lovers, Craig Verm is a muscular-voiced Ferrando who displays an easy soldierly brawniness in charismatic baritone form and tenor Tuomas Katajala gives warm lyricism and heated vibrato to Ferrando. In ensemble singing, however, the gents fared less agreeably with Katajala often roughing up the voice at the top and Verm sometimes lost in the distant soundscape.

Tuomas Katajala, Kevin Burdette and Craig Verm
Adroit and nimble bass Kevin Burdette’s precious Don Alfonso is somewhat the detention master, dressed like an undertaker and smugly orchestrating the plot that forces the wager with his two friends that their lovers won’t remain faithful. Despina the housemaid - PA in this case to the two vain sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella - is the well-experienced teacher. That role, often portrayed with insistence and tomboyishness is in good comic hands with pliant soprano Laura Tatulescu.

The Seattle Opera Orchestra played with taut expertise, beginning with the effervescent overture with particularly fine and filigreed detail emanating from the woodwind players. Conductor Paul Daniel - in his debut at a Seattle Opera - put the score elegantly on show for the ear but greater room for more pounce and adrenaline could have served to compliment the vitality on stage.

After the damage is done, with Don Alfonso winning his bet, the forgiveness that Mozart’s Così fan tutte bestows doesn’t clearly translate into a joyful reunion of the lovers in this contemporary adaptation. It seems to work well despite the foursome garnering little sympathy in their lesson - in this school, the penalty for self-obsession and shallowness is a little more harsh. The solos were superb enough. I only wish a little more attention was given to the brilliance of Mozart’s divine ensembles.

Così fan tutte
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall
Until 27th February, 2018.

Production Photos: Tuffer and Philip Newton