The Dallas Opera: Moby Dick
(after the original production by Leonard Foglia)
- Queequeg Musa Ngqungwana
- Greenhorn Stephen Costello
- Flask David Cangelosi
- Starbuck Morgan Smith
- Stubb Peter McGillivray
- Pip Jacqueline Echols
- Captain Ahab Jay Hunter Morris
- Nantucket Sailor Steven Haal
- Tashtego Brian Rosewell
- Daggoo Christiön Dior Draper
- Spanish Sailor Juan Galván
- Gardiner Mark McCrory
Moby Dick was the first collaboration between Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, the opera team that brought us Great Scott last fall. While the pacing and humor is similar, the stories are wildly different. Moby Dick focuses heavily on the supernatural, insanity at sea, and the moral diversity of man, making it very neo-Romantic in tone. The music itself is also neo-Romantic, with 20th-century influence showing in its dissonances.
A more classical element I very much enjoyed was the inclusion of a pants role in a modern opera: soprano Jacqueline Echols shone as the cabin boy Pip, who is knocked overboard and almost lost at sea, and suffers from 19th-century-romanticized PTSD and prophetic “visions” for the rest of the show. Her singsong, Ophelia-like madness was both fascinating and horrifying in its simplicity and innocence.
Stephen Costello, as usual, played a charmingly naïve tenor type as Greenhorn (our Ishmael, who does not give himself that name til the haunting last line of the opera). His chemistry with Musa Ngqungwana’s Queequeg was wonderful: the back-and-forth between Queequeg’s ship and travel expertise and Greenhorn’s desire to learn made for some sweet moments and some very funny ones. The duet in which Queequeg teaches Greenhorn how to row a whaleboat on a life-or-death hunt is both funny and poignant as it displays just how lost Greenhorn is among the more experienced sailors.
An unexpected star of the evening was Morgan Smith’s conflicted Starbuck, first mate to the obsessive and dangerous Captain Ahab. Believably religious without being overbearing, Starbuck questions his responsibilities to his captain, his men, and his God as Ahab descends deeper into his madness. This leads to a Hamlet-esque scene in which Starbuck hesitates, gun in hand, at Ahab’s bedside. Ahab had nearly shot him for demanding that the men be allowed to hunt whales, instead of constantly searching for Moby Dick, and Starbuck agonizes over whether any of them will see home again with Ahab in command. The whole theater was on edge until Starbuck finally replaced the gun at Ahab’s bedside and left the cabin.
The melodies and harmonies of the opera were beautiful (Heggie and Scheer incorporated the sound of New England folksongs into their score, from subtle themes to a shipwide dance with the orchestra playing “Spanish Ladies”), but the lyrical rhythm left something to be desired. This issue was also present in Great Scott, although to a slightly lesser extent.
The recitatives especially are over-melismatic – lacking that natural rhythm of speech that can be heard in Figaro or Carmen. Without this attention to rhythm, the lines feel stilted, as if the wrong words are being emphasized. While critics uninterested in the opera have dismissed it as people singing when they might as well speak, most of the operas I have seen feel exactly as if they ought to be sung, in exactly the tunes and rhythms they have. Moby Dick was the only one I have ever seen where I felt as if the singing of the recitatives hampered the expression.
November 12th, 2016