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Performances

Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab [Photo by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera]
05 Nov 2015

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

A review by Maria Nockin

Above: Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab [Photo by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera]

 

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s opera is enormously successful and it has been touring the English-speaking world since its 2010 premiere in Dallas. Despite the opera having been seen on television, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was nearly full for the first performance.

Like many other twenty-first century operas, Moby-Dick is tonal; after a few hearings its themes take root in the mind. Musically, Heggie’s ocean music relates somewhat to the blue-green tones of the Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Heggie is his own man, however, and finds a unique sound for each of his works. The ship and its many sailors relate to Britten’s Billy Budd except that Heggie and Scheer have a woman sing Pip, the Cabin Boy. A very good idea, and on this occasion the voice of Jacqueline Echols’ Pip soared gracefully over Heggie’s orchestra, soloists and chorus for much of the first act.

Leonard Foglia’s production featured lighting by Gavan Swift based on Donald Holder’s spectacular original designs with projections from the inventive mind of Elaine J. McCarthy. Robert Brill’s set was a huge sailing ship with decks that seemed to unfold out of a sea mist, while Jane Greenwood’s costumes placed the action securely in the nineteenth century. Choreographer Keturah Stickann and Fight Director Ed Douglass made shipboard life real with sailors’ dances and the fighting that often accompanies groups of men.

The story tells of Ahab and his increasingly reckless pursuit of the white whale. Jay Hunter Morris has been singing this role for five years, and his interpretation has gotten deeper and more intense with each outing. Fanatical but sane and cogent in Act One, Ahab’s focus constantly narrows as the opera progresses. His purpose becomes more evident when he refuses to let his sailors capture other whales. This refusal, which denies them their just wages, leads to the eventual death of all but one sailor, the Greenhorn. Morris is nothing if not a charismatic communicator. He sang with polished clarion tones, impressive breath control, and diction that allowed the listener to stop watching titles.

Tenor Joshua Guerrero, whose voice was new to many, sang Greenhorn with liquid phrasing and dulcet lyrical tones. Musa Ngqungwana was an intense, commanding Queequeg whose musings showed the spiritual side of the voyage. As Starbuck, the First Mate, Morgan Smith sang with impressively colored tones. Smith will be Don Giovanni at Arizona Opera later this season. Malcolm MacKenzie was an intelligent Stubb and Matthew O’Neill a credible Flask. Because he was only heard from off stage, Nicholas Brownlee’s Captain Gardiner was hard to characterize.

Conductor James Conlon puts his singular stamp on everything he does and Moby-Dick is no exception. Although I’ve seen this opera 3 times, I heard new and different sonorities at the Chandler Pavilion and I loved the sparkling lyricism of Conlon’s interpretation. His sea is not always angry. It varies as does the weather and only at the end does it rise up and overpower humanity. I enjoyed Moby-Dick and suggest opera lovers try to see it more than once to savor its many layers.

Maria Nockin


Cast and production information:

Captain Ahab, Jay Hunter Morris; Greenhorn, Joshua Guerrero; Starbuck, first mate, Morgan Smith; Queequeg, Musa Ngqungwana; Pip, Jacqueline Echols; Stubb, Malcolm MacKenzie; Flask, Matthew O'Neill; Captain Gardiner, Nicholas Brownlee; 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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