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In Review Utah Opera Moby dick hdl 418
A new Moby-Dick at Utah Opera
© Utah Opera/Dana Sohm

WHEN UTAH OPERA artistic director Christopher McBeth attended the 2010 world premiere of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick at Dallas Opera, he wanted to bring the work to Utah but found the confines of Utah’s Capitol Theatre—and the company’s budget—incompatible with the opera’s original staging by Leonard Foglia. So McBeth decided to form an international coalition with four other companies to mount a new coproduction of Moby-Dick,with sets and costumes constructed by Utah Opera’s Scenic Studio. What the January 20 opening-night audience witnessed was an artistically creative reimagining of the original production without its expensive technical wizardry. This Moby-Dick sailed without the bells and whistles of the original but scored with vivid characterizations, gleaming voices and orchestral brilliance. 

Heggie and Scheer were on hand to help launch the new incarnation. Their work has already captivated an international audience. Scheer skillfully distilled Herman Melville’s voluminous novel to essential elements of character motivation and psychological development. Heggie’s visceral score and colorful instrumentation highlight fascinating contrasts in character development, voice pairings and music style; the composer’s use of dissonance and flirtations with atonality dance well off an overwhelmingly lyric and tonal score.

The Utah Opera team of stage director Kristine McIntyre, set designer Erhard Rom and costume designer Jessica Jahn created period-authentic scenes with textured, individualistic costuming, stunning seascapes, vintage nautical and star charts and multi-level perches, including a crow’s nest on a large mast column that dominated center stage. A sense of motion, visualized in the original production through projections, was here partially provided by a cast-powered turntable surrounding the mast—a device especially effective during scenes when sailors with harpoons were dispatched in longboats. More action and emotional depth came from the Utah Opera chorus, prepared by Michaella Calzaretta, and four dancers, choreographed by Daniel Charon. McIntyre imbued this band of sailors with individuality and natural movement, positioning them for maximum visual and vocal benefit. Their Act I chorus, “Death to Moby Dick,” was riveting. 

The audience held its breath as Roger Honeywell’s peg-legged Captain Ahab lumbered around the deck and down stairs or swung precariously above the stage in a basket, during his relentless search for the white whale. Honeywell’s unflagging heldentenor intensely portrayed Ahab’s obsession, deftly negotiating angular, piercing vocal lines. His more melodic Act II aria, “Heartless God,” was an exquisitely sung respite before the work’s stormy ending. 

David Adam Moore, as the God-fearing moralist Starbuck, raised his burnished baritone in righteous indignation at Ahab’s “blasphemous” quest, giving the evening’s most nuanced performance, while tenor Joshua Dennis, as Greenhorn, illuminated the character’s literal and figurative journey with a light lyric voice that darkened as Greenhorn grew with understanding and tolerance. Musa Ngqungwana’s Queequeg was enigmatic and resonant, deeply immersed in his role as Greenhorn’s unlikely friend who inspires acceptance and trust.

Other cast standouts included Joseph Gaines’s Flask and Craig Irvin’s Stubb, who provided lighthearted moments, and Jasmine Habersham, whose voice floated freely above the otherwise male cast in the trouser role of Pip. Utah Opera resident artist Jesús Vicente Murillo displayed a potent baritone and passion in the dual role of Captain Gardiner/Spanish Sailor.

Joseph Mechavich conducted members of the Utah Symphony Orchestra with clarity and canny balance, illuminating Heggie’s luscious score. Alas, opening night wasn’t without a technical glitch: a piece of equipment with a dying battery emitted an electronic beeping for ten minutes during an orchestral interlude until a technician could resolve the issue. —Robert Coleman 

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