An opera in two acts by Jake Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer, based on the novel Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville
Performance on Saturday, 3rd September 2011 in the Festival Theatre, Adelaide by the State Opera of South Australia with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Timothy Sexton
Director Leonard Foglia
Set Designer Robert Brill
Costumes Jane Greenwood and Moria Clinton (associate)
Projection Designer Elaine McCarthy
Lighting Donald Holder
Choreographer Keturah Stckann
Revival Projection Designer Shawn Boyle
Revival Lighting Designer Gavan Swift
Fight Choregrapher Nino Pilla
Captain Ahab Jay Hunter Morris
Starbuck Grant Doyle
Greenhorn James Egglestone
Queequeg Jonathan Lemalu
Stubb Byron Watson
Flask Adam Goodburn
Pip Lorina Gore
Captain Gardiner Douglas McNicol
Daggoo Andrew Turner
Tashtego Douglas McRae
Nantucket Sailor Gerard Schneider
Spanish Sailor James Scott
Awash with atmospheric and highly melodious music, high drama, and one of the most spectacular opera stagings one could see, the Pequod docked in the Adelaide Festival Theatre for only the second staging of MOBY DICK since it was first staged by The Dallas Opera at the Winspear Opera House in April of 2010.
The State Opera of South Australia having previously staged Heggie’s DEAD MAN WALKING in 2003, had the enterprise to co-comission Heggie to compose this opera, and co-produce the staging together with The Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera and Calgary Opera. Although Heggie is a well established opera composer, this is risk taking at the highest level, but has paid off big time for this outstanding company renowned for its risk taking – and delivering the goods.
The American classic, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, first published in 1851 is a complex romantic novel that tells the tale of a greenhorn sailor’s journey on a whaling ship, the Pequod, captained by Captain Ahab. What starts as a whaling expedition soon becomes a quest to find and kill Moby Dick a freak white whale who has previously sunk Ahab’s last ship and bitten off his leg. The crippled, peg-legged Ahab invests the whale with malign and evil intent and with the fervour of a fire and brimstone preacher, whips the crew up to aid in his mission which inevitably results in prolonged suffering, the sinking of the Pequod, the loss of all the crew save Greenhorn (Ishmael) and his own life. The tale is rich in whaling history, a sailor’s life aboard a whaling ship, and complex themes of destructive obsession, class and social status, good versus evil, the existence of God, anthropomorphism, and monomania.
The librettist and composer have wisely jettisoned the opening scenes of the book set on land and the entire action of the opera is set at sea aboard the Pequod. The narrative is highly edited retaining only the potent scenes that relate the drama and enrich the themes of the original book.
The opera opens with a prelude that immediately engages you and submerges you in one of the most evocative soundscapes of the restless sea. On a black front cloth stars appear, and lines paradoxically begin to appear between them, expanding until white lines draw the masts of the Pequod. Then they rotate and the audience is suddenly zooming down at a white outline of the Pequod. The curtain rises for the first seen between Queequeg and Greenhorn. The set consists of huge flat planked wall that fills the back of the stage, and curves steeply forward until it meets the raked stage floor. In front of this, huge masts, a myriad of ropes and rigging and gauze sails, are flown in and moved for the scenes on board the vessel, and the curved back wall is used for atmospheric projections of the sea. In one spectacular scene when Pip is lost at sea during a whaling expedition, Pip swims suspended from a wire metres above the stage against a projection of undersea water filling the set (see picture above). Following the successful capture of a whale, a portion of the back wall drops down to reveal a huge section of the whale carcass suspended against a blood red light while sections of blubber are cut off , then boiled. Together with cast climbing up the back wall then having the sea and long boats projected around them, and the death of Ahab where the ever increasing eye of Moby Dick was projected against the wall, the effects were truly magical and breathtaking. At times it seemed difficult to tell whether you were looking at a stage production or film, as the projections and video integrated seamlessly within the staging. Great stuff !!
Jay Hunter Morris was simply magnificent as Ahab in a very demanding helden tenor role. We have come to expect excellence from him following his superb performances for Opera Australia as Pinkerton in the 1990′s and as Erik in THE FLYING DUTCHMAN more recently. His initial OTELLO like appearance with ringing top notes sung over an expanded chorus set the scene for a finely judged performance both vocally and dramatically. Every nuance was extracted from his role with alternating scenes of fiery outbursts, contemplative soliloquy, crazed passion and his final descent into complete madness with a crazed look in his eye. The tall blond and youthful Texan looked unrecognisable as a much older, craggy sea salt with a peg leg. Jonathan Lemalu again singing the role of Queequeg that he created for the initial performances of MOBY DICK in Dallas, was simply awesome vocally and dramatically. He caught the mysticism of the part well and his rich, mellow bass baritone voice easily filled the theatre. As the first mate Startbuck, Adelaide born Grant Doyle – fresh from a string of major roles and triumphs at Covent Garden, Opera North and Holland Park Opera seemed a shoe-in. Starbuck is the main protagonist against Ahab, and although he sang with a fine voice and dramatic conviction, his character seemed a little bland – perhaps due to the overpowering presence of Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab. I wondered what someone like Peter Coleman-Wright would make of this role. James Egglestone and Lorina Gore were superb in their roles of Greenhorn and Pip. Egglestone presented a highly sympathetic figure with a good range of emotional depth and his fine tenor met all the demands of the part with an excellent range of expression. Lorina Gore also found a wide range of dramatic expression in her trouser role as the cabin boy ranging from cheeriness to despair following her near drowning and conversation with Captain Gardener. Singing from off stage, Douglas McNicol provided a booming resonant voice as Captain Gardiner. Stubb, Flask and the smaller roles of the other sailors were all more than adequately sung.
MOBY DICK is a large chorus opera, and we were not disappointed. The State Opera of South Australia mens chorus – expanded to 37 singers for the opera, were extremely well rehearsed and sang gloriously with vigour , precision and a rich tone . Another 15 supernumeraries as sailors added to the ships crew. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra played the score expertly under conductor and recently appointed CEO and Artistic Director of SOSA, Timothy Sexton who conducted the opera with vigour and passion. Mr Sexton also prepared the chorus.
Overall, a stunning night of musical theatre of a truly magnificent new opera in a brilliant and cutting-edge production. The packed house which included composer Richard Mills seemed to enjoy it immensely.
While the book initially was savaged by reviewers after its initial publication, it is now a classic of American literature. This new opera by Heggie and Scheer has all the makings of being a classic of American opera.
The ABC will broadcast a recording of a live performance of the SOSA production this Sunday, 11th September at 7.00 pm – DON”T MISS IT !