The local premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick was presented by Pittsburgh Opera at the Benedum last night, and was greeted with great and deserved enthusiasm by an audience which included the composer himself. Indeed, Heggie received one of the loudest roars of applause at the final curtain; here was genuine appreciation of a contemporary American composer with no fear of the “grand opera” idiom, whose orchestration is virtually a symphony unto itself, full of nuance and shading that underline the massive choruses, ensembles and leading characters on the stage. In a spot or two, it seemed like the statue was in the orchestra pit and the pedestal was on the stage, but as a whole, his work is extraordinarily impressive, and it quickly became apparent why this modern opera has enjoyed the success it has over the last seven years or so, and it’s easy to imagine that this new production will be sought out by opera companies for years to come, although it could benefit from one or two slight improvements in the stage design.
Conductor Antony Walker, last seen at the podium in the autumn months, received a rousing welcome when he came into view, and within minutes of beginning the overture, made it clear that he and the instrumentalists had made a careful study of the colorful, quite beautiful orchestration that tells the grim, tragic story almost as well as the singing actors and action on the stage. Heggie’s accompaniment roars like the raging seas, whispers at the right moments, and proves that contemporary opera can be made “classical,” enduring and endearing, just as it was in the days of Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and others – but the sound is new, unique to a present day composer who doesn’t imitate the greats of the past to any great degree, but amply demonstrates that his talents are very much on a par with many legendary names. The music flows continuously, much like Wagner’s and Strauss,’ but even here, he displays individuality rather than imitation. Walker and the orchestra gave a performance of the score that was a major highlight of the evening.
Great demands are made on the all-male chorus, but under Mark Trawka, this group never disappoints, and, augmented by more acrobatic, non-singing dancers from Attack Theatre, the rousing ensembles were quite thrilling, vocally impressive and well choreographed. When the leading singers lend their voices to these abundant moments, the effects are quite exciting. And among the leading singers there is a great wealth of talent. It should be noted first – since it was such a welcomed rarity – that the mostly bloody, gory, but occasionally touching English text was delivered with a great deal of clarity, so much so that the projection of the words above the stage scarcely seemed necessary for the soloists.
Based on January reviews out of Utah, one was led to believe that tenor Roger Honeywell lent to Captain Ahab the vocal traits of a Wagnerian Tristan or Siegfried, but he seems to have honed his conception of the role to more aptly fit the aging, bitter and weakening character. His tenor is indeed one of heroic proportions, but he used it skillfully and continently, all the while stumping about the stage on a wonderfully designed artificial leg. But even this aspect wasn’t overdone – in his appearance and acting, a better interpreter of the role would be hard to come by, and he mesmerized throughout. His listeners are able to feel both disdain and sympathy for the character as he sings and acts the part.
The touching friendship between Greenhorn and Queequeg was made prominently endearing by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana. The first named young man possesses a brilliant, ringing tenor that local audiences know well from his Resident Artist days with the company, while the bass-baritone was a newcomer. His voice is warm and mellow, and possesses great carrying power that is attained (seemingly) with little effort. Another newcomer who gave a sterling performance was Michael Mayes, as Starbuck. The American baritone has a powerfully rich voice, and acts as well as he sings. These three came in for the lion’s share of applause hurled at the solo singers when the opera concluded.
Jacqueline Echols, in the “trouser role” of Pip, provided the lone female voice of the evening, and a strong, beautifully colored voice it was, indeed. In secondary roles, Eric Ferring (Flask) and Ben Taylor (Daggoo and Gardiner) were standouts. The tenor made the most of his vocal opportunities, and with baritone Malcolm MacKenzie (Stubb), provided a moment of brief, comic relief. As Gardiner, the captain of a passing ship in search of his lost son, Taylor, off stage and placed in darkness high above the audience, gave a display of his booming baritone that was quite thrilling. George Milosh (the Nantucket Sailor), Andy Berry (the Spanish Sailor) and Scott Cuva (Tashtego) rounded out the excellent ensemble of talent.
The production, a collaboration between Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, Opera San Jose, Teatre Liceu (Barcelona) and Chicago Opera Theatre, is colorfully designed and for the most part, an impressive staging. The rather abstract set design of Erhard Rom and marvelous costuming by Jessica Jahn are effectively made the most of under the stage direction of Kristine McIntyre. Using singers and “supes” to manipulate the scene changes seems to be the new norm, but takes a bit away from the impact of a total theatrical experience. One effect most in need of improvement is the drop that illustrates the raging storm that ultimately dooms Ahab and all but one of his crew. A cloth (with anonymous hands in the wings visibly making it “wave”) made for an anti-climax when it was needed least.
The orchestra floor was well filled, but since the upper tiers of the Benedum are not visible from there, only the box-office and those on the stage know the size of the first-night audience. But it seemed like it should have been larger. Those who budget their operatic dollars for the warhorses are highly encouraged to take advantage of hearing Moby-Dick – it may very well one day fall into the category of the tried and true works.
For tickets, full production details, wonderful photographs and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
“The Artistic Team” for Moby-Dick –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Composer, Jake Heggie; Librettist, Gene Scheer; Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre; Set Designer, Erhard Rom; Costume Designer, Jessica Jahn; Lighting Designer, Marcus Dilliard; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Original Choreography, Daniel Charon; Choreographic Reconstruction, Natalie Desch; Dancers, Attack Theatre; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight
David Bachman Photography