Utah Opera 2017-18 Review – Moby Dick: Jake Heggie’s Masterwork Soars In Solid Production

(Credit: Utah Opera/Dana Sohm.)

Condensing a full-length novel down to an opera of manageable proportions is a daunting task. Sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable. Take, for example, Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s transformation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Since its premiere in 2007, it’s gone through several revisions and multiple attempts at downsizing the sprawling story to a find a good, if not altogether successful, solution that works as an opera of less-than-Wagnerian length.
A more fortuitous example is Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick” for the stage. The operatic version manages to condense the book’s sprawling action into 2 1/2 hours without compromising the essential elements or the emotional power of the original. And since its premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010, it’s proven its popularity with audiences at subsequent productions throughout the United States.

A Modern Masterpiece

“Moby-Dick” finally made its Utah Opera premiere in January at the Capitol Theatre as part of the company’s 2017-18 40th anniversary season. This is a newly re-visioned staging with new sets and costumes designed by the Utah Opera. It’s also a multi-company co-production with Pittsburgh Opera, Opera San Jose, Chicago Opera Theater, and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Originally built over a century ago to serve as a vaudeville house and movie palace, the Capitol Theatre has had a long and varied presence in Salt Lake City. Renovated several times over the decades, it now serves as home for the Utah Opera and for Ballet West.  The stage is fairly small for opera, but productions here have generally made good use of its limitations.

That’s also the case with “Moby-Dick.” The sets that Erhard Rom designed, and which were constructed at the Utah Opera Production Studios, were built specifically with an eye towards smaller theaters with limited stage space. And Rom’s design works remarkably well in the Capitol Theatre. It depicts the whaler “Pequod” as a deconstructed ship with its sides decorated by maps of seafaring explorers with their names and the dates of their legendary voyages. The sides are curved and seem to coalesce and flow into the wings of the theater. Consequently, the action and movement onstage don’t seem confined or constrained. There is also a raised platform around a large mast center stage that is decorated with a compass dial that revolves and allows for quick scene changes that keep the story moving along.

Smart Casting

The fact that the setting works so effortlessly is also due to director Kristine McIntyre’s deft blocking and staging that make full use of the available space. Working together, Rom and McIntyre have come up with a highly successful formula that should play well in other regional opera houses.

Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth is generally spot on in his casting decisions, and for “Moby-Dick” he has assembled a solid international group of singers to portray the motley crew aboard the “Pequod.” All of the singers, from the leads to the minor roles, possessed a richness of voice and depth of expression on opening night (Jan. 21) that contributed to a powerful display of vocal artistry.

It can be difficult to bring vocal variety to an all-male opera, but, just like Benjamin Britten in “Billy Budd,” Heggie manages to bring diversity and distinctiveness to the various roles.

Adding some relief to the testosterone-laden singing is soprano Jasmine Habersham as the young crew member Pip. Her soaring voice carried lustrously over the other solo voices and the chorus, and the brightness and sheen of her voice was a welcome addition to the stellar cast.

“Moby-Dick” is very much an ensemble-driven work, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the individual contributors and point out the “star” of the show. But several singers did leave their mark on this performance.

Captain of the Ship

Heading this short list of artists is Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell as Captain Ahab. He brought depth to his portrayal of the grizzled seaman who is insanely obsessed with sailing the seas until he finds the whale that killed several of his crewmen and bit off a portion of his leg on a previous expedition.

While Ahab is far from a likable character, Honeywell did bring some humanity to him and showed that he once did possess a softer side, which now has been overshadowed by the madness that drives his nearly hopeless quest.

Vocally, Honeywell has a vibrant, dynamic timbre that is tempered with a lyricism that doesn’t sacrifice anything in terms of power and richness. He sang his role with clarity and cleanly defined precision and intonation.

Strong Crewmates

Baritone David Adam Moore took on the role of Starbuck, Ahab’s antithesis. Starbuck is the voice of reason and common sense, although he does have his moments of frustrated anger and visible hatred towards Ahab. Moore’s subtly shaded interpretation captured the dichotomy of his character both in his singing and his acting. And his mellow baritone blended well with Honeywell’s supple tenor in their scenes together.

As Greenhorn, tenor Joshua Dennis was fabulous. He underscored his character’s gradual transformation from young, inexperienced seaman to the seasoned sailor he becomes towards the end of the opera. He, too, was in fine voice at the opening night performance.

Also impressive was South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as the Islander Queequeg. His voice resonated with power and expressiveness and balanced well with the other singers. He brought wonderfully defined characterization to his interpretation. Queequeg is the one truly good, decent, human and devout person in the crew, and his budding friendship with Greenhorn was heartwarming to see.

Rounding out the cast were tenor Joseph Gaines (Flask); baritone Craig Irvin (Stubb); Nigerian baritone Babatunde Akinboboye (Daggoo); tenor, and Utah native, Keanu Aiono-Netzler (Tashtego); baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo (Captain Gardiner and the Spanish Sailor); and tenor, and Utah native, Anthony Buck (Nantucket Sailor). All gave first-rate performances, and their singing and acting were on an equal footing with those of the main characters.

The Utah Opera Chorus, under chorus master Michaella Calzaretta, gave another vocally solid performance. One of the best regional opera choruses in the country, this ensemble never fails to please.

Under conductor Joseph Mechavich, the members of the Utah Symphony playing for this production executed the score with finesse and lyricism and well-defined, dynamic clarity and expression.
This is a production that has a lot going for it. And with this revised, smaller scale version, it has the possibility of reaching an even wider audience around the country.

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