A Well-Nigh Perfect Production of Heggie’s Moby-Dick

21/03/2018

Heggie, Moby-Dick: Soloists, Attack Theatre Dancers, Pittsburgh Opera Symphony and Men of the Chorus / Anthony Walker (conductor), Pittsburgh Opera, Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, 17.3.2018. (RP)

Sean Panikkar (Greenhorn) in Moby-Dick © David Bachman

Cast:

Captain Ahab – Roger Honeywell
Starbuck – Michael Mayes
Queequeg – Musa Ngqungwana
Greenhorn – Sean Panikkar
Pip – Jacqueline Echols
Stubb – Malcom MacKenzie
Flask – Eric Ferring
Gardiner – Ben Taylor
Nantucket Sailor – George Milosh
Tashtego – Scott Cuva
Daggoo – Ben Taylor
Spanish Sailor – Andy Berry

Production:

Stage Director – Kristine McIntyre
Set Designer – Erhard Rom
Costume Designer – Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer – Marcus Dilliard
Wig and Make-up Designer – James Geier
Choreographer – Daniel Charon

The undulating, hypnotic overture to Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick immediately transported me aboard the Pequod. The sounds are the opposite extreme of the violent storm which opens Verdi’s Otello, but both portend of doom. (Is it mere coincidence that the Moor, Peter Grimes and Captain Ahab are all dramatic tenors?) What followed was a well-nigh perfect performance of this powerful opera by the Pittsburgh Opera.

Heggie and his librettist, Gene Scheer, pared down Melville’s sprawling tale of Captain Ahab’s maniacal obsession with his nemesis, a great white whale, to its essence. Gone are the lengthy descriptions of preparing the Pequod for its voyage, insights into the industrious New England folk who own it and Elijah’s prophecy. There are likewise no lengthy discourses on cetology. What remains are the pivotal human relationships that are also at the heart of the novel.

The instantaneous and inexplicable bond between Queequeg, a Polynesian philosopher prince, and the rootless Greenhorn, setting off to see the watery parts of the world, frames the action. The other, more crucial relationship is that of the captain and his first mate, Starbuck. A ship’s captain wields absolute power over his crew, but when Starbuck aimed a musket at Ahab, there was every reason to believe that he would fire. He’s a God-fearing Quaker so duty prevails, and thus his hopes of ever seeing his wife and son are dashed.

Rich orchestral colors infuse the overture and interludes, while melodies abound in the arias, ensembles and choruses. There is more than a whiff of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd in the score, but so too of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and South Pacific. For all the power and breadth of Moby-Dick, it is not too grand an opera to entertain.

The production premiered at Utah Opera in January of this year. After Pittsburgh, it will travel to San Jose, Barcelona and Chicago. Transportability, however, was no barrier to effectiveness; a backdrop of nautical maps framed a revolving display of astrological charts, red skies at night and morn, blue skies with billowing white clouds and St. Elmo’s fire during a storm.

Sailors dismember a sperm whale aboard the Pequod © David Bachman

A large mast dominated the deck of the Pequod, although the bloody carcass of a whale hung in the center while the crew rendered its blubber into oil. A revolving disc serves as the ship’s deck and opens to form the whaleboats that the men use to hunt their prey. The only stage element that did not ring true for me was the large whale’s eye that takes center stage during the fatal chase. Costumes were of the period, as authentic as could be.

Roger Honeywell’s Captain Ahab was obsessed and tyrannical, but not diabolical. He softened briefly as he sang of his many years at sea and longingly of his young wife and son. Otherwise, his voice rang free and his focus was absolute. I can imagine a voice with more thrust and cut in the role, but Honeywell was Ahab.

Innocent and powerless, the boy Pip (a trouser role) is the ship’s mascot. He is indeed its very soul, as Ahab acknowledges when he baptizes his harpoon with the boy’s blood. As Pip, Jacqueline Echols’ soprano soared effortlessly above those of the men in the ensembles, adding a sparkle to the chorus’s robust, manly sound. In her arias and duets, the voice was shining and luminous.

The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent. Michael Mayes’ powerful baritone was as solid and stalwart as Starbuck’s character, although it became soft and tender as he sang of home. As imposing physically as he was vocally, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana captured the enigma that is Queequeg. Malcolm MacKenzie’s Stubb was the clown of the crew, drawing laughs with his ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ antics. As Gardiner, baritone Ben Taylor sang from a side balcony in the house. He probably could have been standing outside on Seventh Street and still have been heard.

Melville wrote that a whaling ship’s crew was a mix of all the races of the world providing the muscle to sate America’s thirst for whale oil. The men of the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus were that motley mix, lustily singing the opera’s sea shanties and rousing choruses; the Attack Theater dancers were so interwoven into the ship’s crew that their movements provided texture rather than spectacle. The orchestra was splendid: what more can be said. Anthony Walker’s command of the music was as absolute as that of Ahab over his ship.

That leaves just tenor Sean Panikkar as Greenhorn, the only survivor of the herculean battle of man versus whale. Tentative at first, just as Greenhorn was as he set off on his first whaling expedition, Panikkar revealed himself to be a star. His charisma was potent and his voice golden. His was the last voice heard in the opera, singing the words with which Melville began his novel, ‘Call me Ishmael’. The curtain fell as the orchestra played the same sounds of the sea that had mesmerized me at the start.

 Rick Perdian

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