Live Opera: Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at the LA Opera

By Jane Rosenberg

A beautifully conceived graphic depiction of a ship at sea under an immense canopy of stars, a libretto derived from a classic American novel, a score by a noted American composer, a superb conductor at the helm of the orchestra, and a uniformly excellent cast of singers. These were the ingredients that formed the stew of Jake Heggie’s opera, Moby Dick, opening Saturday at the LA Opera.

In this tale of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale who tore off his leg and his drive to destroy it no matter what the cost, there was plenty for the eyes and ears to feast upon. Sets by Robert Brill brilliantly created the sails, rigging, and masts of the whaling ship Pequod. The floor of the ship arced upwards to create a rear wall on which the crew climbed and perched, particularly effective when Elaine McCarthy’s video projections surrounded them, suggesting whaling boats tossed at sea. The opera opened with projections of a starry firmament interconnected by threads of moving lines that formed constellations. The lines of the constellations transformed into the parts and angles of a ship’s rigging and became the masts, sails, and hull of a sailing vessel. When coupled with the silken opening chords of Heggie’s score, we plunged into the depths of the ocean and the vastness of space.

“Moby Dick”

This is an opera of all male singers save one (the cabin boy Pip is sung by a soprano) and the LAO men’s chorus made us truly believe in the crew and their devotion to their deeply troubled Captain Ahab. In fact, the relationship of crew to captain, of Ahab to Starbuck, of Queequeg to Greenhorn, and of Pip to the men formed the heart of the opera both musically and in Gene Scheer’s libretto.

Influences abound in Heggie’s tuneful score and Britten naturally comes to mind, along with Wagner, Debussy, Barber, and Glass, all of whom contribute to Heggie’s musical language. In Moby Dick, the composer created a large canvas of roiling life in sound form, even incorporating the lyricism of Puccini in Starbuck’s Act I Scene II aria when he sang longingly of his wife and son. Among the highlights of the score were two sea chanteys in which folk songs were evoked and undercut with percussive dissonances.

The orchestra maintained the layers of sound from quiet interludes to sweeping phrases to oceanic turbulence. At times the musical variety of Heggie’s score grew heavy-handed but the overall effect was rich and shaded.

Dramatically one wished for more foreboding in Act I’s first scene. Starbuck was the only character to challenge Ahab’s commands and to question his sanity, whereas the crew seemed in accord with their captain’s mad desire. But the plot moved forward during the second scene when Pip was lost at sea and Ahab, driven to anger by his first mate, nearly shot Starbuck in cold blood.

Morgan Smith as Starbuck

Morgan Smith, as Starbuck, was the foil to Jay Hunter Morris’s Ahab. Smith’s baritone begged, cajoled, and cautioned his captain. Smith sang it all with warmth and ardor – his presence solid and reassuring even when his anxiety mounted. In one of the most dramatic moments of the opera, Starbuck found the captain asleep and the musket that almost murdered him by Ahab’s bedside. Starbuck agonized over whether he should shoot the man who would surely bring destruction to the Pequod. Smith wrenched our hearts as he gave vent to his stricken conscience.

TK as Ahab
Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab

Jay Hunter Morris’s Ahab was the penultimate New Englander. Enunciating every syllable of the text, Morris made us believe in the America of whaling ships and seafaring men. Enduring three hours strapped into a peg leg, Morris sang the heldentenor role with the dramatic intensity of a man possessed, tempered by the character of a stoic New Englander. It was an admirable interpretation.

Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg

Bass baritone Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg was a haunting presence, commanding our respect as the noble and enlightened soul. His relationship to Greenhorn (who we later learn is Ishmael) is both subtle and moving. Joshua Guerrero’s Greenhorn touched the heart as the lonely, neophyte crew member, particularly in his lyrical duet with Queequeg.

As Pip, soprano Jacqueline Echols sang with clarity and conviction, though her acting didn’t call to mind a sprightly cabin boy. Malcolm MacKenzie’s genial second mate, Stubb, was particularly lively in his riveting duet with Pip as they sang of rare and bloody whale meat.

Rounding out the cast was Matthew O’Neill as Flask and Nicholas Brownlee, powerfully singing the off stage role of the commander of the ship Rachel.

"Moby Dick"
“Moby Dick”

Evoking the limitless heavens, the turbulent sea, and the wave tossed ship, both musically, dramatically, and visually, Moby Dick was a success. But given all this, one would have expected Ahab’s end to be a final thrilling moment. Instead, crashing waves are projected on the wall behind him with only a hint of the whale’s eye in the center of the storm. I longed for a projection of the great white whale depicted so graphically in Rockwell Kent’s iconic illustrations. Instead, Ahab disappears from view under a platform that drops down to cover him and we never get a true glimpse of Moby Dick. It’s a subtle ending, perhaps too subtle for this ambitious, American opera.

Cast:
Captain Ahab: Jay Hunter Morris
Greenhorn: Joshua Guerrero
Starbuck, first mate: Morgan Smith
Queequeg, a harpooner: Musa Ngqungwana
Pip, cabin boy: Jacqueline Echols
Stubb, second mate: Malcolm MacKenzie
Flask, third mate: Matthew O’Neill
Captain Gardiner: Nicholas Brownlee

Production:
Composer: Jake Heggie
Librettist: Gene Scheer
Conductor: James Conlon
Production: Leonard Foglia
Set Designer: Robert Brill
Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer: Gavan Swift
Original Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Projection Designer: Elaine J. McCarthy
Associate Director and Choreographer: Keturah Stickann
Fight Director: Ed Douglas

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Photos by Craig T. Mathew

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To read more opera, dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

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