In Moby-Dick, Performers Manage to Sing While Suspended From Ropes and Ladders

Musa Ngqungwana as QueequegEXPAND
Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg
Karen Almond

On Friday night, the opera Moby-Dick returned to the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, the site of its world premiere in 2010. Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have tightly condensed Herman Melville’s 800-page classic into a two act, three-hour opera, but stayed true to the mood of this great American novel.

Librettist Scheer artfully used a great deal of Melville’s account of the maniacal Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the great white whale. Composer Heggie balances a cast of powerful personalities with his restrained score, seemingly content to let the story speak for itself. The two have succeeded in making the opera Moby-Dick into a powerful depiction of humanity, friendship and fate.

The audience settled into their seats while the Dallas Opera Orchestra played a quiet prelude, watching as stars and constellations appeared in a dark sky. This was just the beginning of Elaine J McCarthy’s amazing projections that brought the whaling ship Pequod to life. Robert Brill’s sets were astonishing, allowing a large cast to climb and slide from top to bottom of the ship. His use of ropes would make Melville proud.

Tenor Stephen Costello was eloquent in his portrayal of Greenhorn (the new name for the narrator, Ishmael). Greenhorn comes to respect Queequeg, the noble savage whose strange prayers and tattoos initially confuse and annoy him. Costello’s clear tone clearly communicated his spiritual awakening when he sang "Now I See." Costello’s voice paired well with the luminous authority and powerful presence of bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg.

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Bass Morgan Smith finely acted in the role of second in command, Starbuck, and his singing was even finer. When Starbuck attempts to dissuade Captain Ahab from his fool’s mission to wreck vengeance on the white whale, the audience was treated to the evening's most powerful and passionate singing — his duets with tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab in particular.

The opera recreates one especially powerful chapter in Melville’s novel known as the "Symphony Scene," where it seems for a moment Ahab may abandon the doomed voyage so both he and Starbuck can return to their wives and sons. Hunter Morris momentarily sang in falsetto as a counter to Smith's resonating bass of Smith. This duet was a highlight.

Lyric soprano Jacqueline Echols as cabin boy Pip demonstrated exceptional range and flexibility. Funny and light when she and Stubb, baritone Peter McGillivray, sang about the proper way to prepare a whale steak (rare) and poignant when she sang of poor Rover (Queequeg). Echols is unflappable; she sings while suspended high above the stage.

Echols was not the only performer who was expected to sing under less than optimal conditions. Throughout the performance, characters climbed or hung above the stage on ladders and Hunter Morris limped around the stage on his peg-leg while his real one was strapped behind him.

Alexander Rom coordinated the large men’s chorus who formed the crew of the whaling ship. Their excellent performance of "In the Heart of the Sea" was haunting.

Several large groups of students attended their first live opera performance on opening night and the production was also simulcast to nearby Klyde Warren Park as well as an event center in Wichita Falls, Texas. The students should not have been disappointed because Friday’s highly theatrical performance was filled with strong and varied voices performing with a disciplined orchestra finely directed by Dallas Opera's music director, Emmanuel Villaume.

Performances continue Nov. 9, 12, 18 and 20 at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Tickets start at $19 at dallasopera.org.


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