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|
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|
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|
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.
Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City
Until 28th January, 2018.
Production Photos: courtesy of Utah Opera