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You won't need Starbucks to keep you awake at the LA Opera's 'Moby Dick'

Onstage rehearsal for
Onstage rehearsal for "Moby Dick" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Craig T. Mathew

Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews "Moby Dick," at the L.A. Opera through Nov. 28.

As the sun begins to set, Ahab looks over the wake of the ship and mourns that his obsession deprives him of any enjoyment of beauty; all is anguish to him. At the masthead, Queequeg and Greenhorn look over the world, while Starbuck, on deck, bemoans Ahab’s madness. — "Moby Dick" Synopsis, Act One, Day One

First, there’s the presumption, flash, daring and pure immense labor involved in operatizing the greatest of American novels. Second, there are the successful results: melodic, dramatic, even intellectual. It's Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s “Moby Dick,” in a traveling production from the Dallas Opera.

Of course, the successful results are straight out of Melville’s mighty questioning of the ways of man to God; of subordinates to leaders; of family versus ambition; of obsession and duty and plain human love. Of racism versus respect. Pessimism and hope; perception versus reality. And just about every other issue that has ever bedeviled humanity, all crammed among the doomed thwarts and planks of a small wooden ship.

Composer Heggie and librettist Scheer have gathered up a surprisingly generous assortment of Melvillian obsessions, delivered by the L.A. Opera in a pleasing package full of rollicking choruses, challenging arias and, most effectively, intricate and mellifluous ensembles.

This is 21st century opera, folks, with diverse but harmonically enticing tunes that invoke Britten, Puccini, Wagner, Glass and even Sondheim, plus generic, late-model film music. (Which is no more reprehensible, of course, than Beethoven insinuating pop tunes of his day into his music.) But operatic modernity has apparently finally shed the "Modernity’" of a century ago... meaning that sedate operagoers need not fear 12-tone intervals here. Moby’s tonalities are in the Old Time tradition. (Despite this, I noted quite a few emptied seats after intermission).  

They push the story right along, as we see tenor Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris) ensorcell* his crew into accepting, then enthusiastically sharing, his obsession to destroy the whale who mutilated him years ago. “Just a dumb beast,” protests the rational mate Starbuck, empathically sung by baritone Martin Smith. To no avail.  The rest of the story is how this shipful of rational men abet their own destruction by this "dumb beast’’ to which they ascribe supernatural powers. It’s a never-bettered metaphor for mankind in fatal conflict with chaos.

(The last known image of Melville, 1885. Rockwood/NYPL/Wikipedia)

Along the way, individual human tales unwind.  The narrator Greenhorn/Ishmael, well sung by tenor Joshua Guerrerot, falls in love with a mighty Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg, embodied by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana; the two plan themselves an island paradise in a gorgeous duet. Pip, the cabin boy — doughty soprano Jacqueline Echols — is lost at sea and, in a shattering scene in which Pip  sings a gently deranged aria while suspended in the water, goes mad before being  saved by the crew.

Starbuck and Ahab have their own hate-love relationship, and nearly kill one another before the end.  Yet, in a lovely, lissome duet, they discuss the joys of home and parenting until Ahab is nearly persuaded to turn back to Nantucket. It seems that rationality will finally prevail. But just then, the lookout spots the deadly (if strangely benign-looking) white whale. Soon it is all over for everyone but Ishmael, "alone is left to tell the tale.’’  

Conductor James Conlon got the best out of his players and Heggie’s eclectic score, while stage director Leonard Foglia mastered the intricate and athletically challenging staging. Tenor Morris’ dramatic presence filled the role of Ahab, but there seemed to be a bit of strain in his opening night performance. Nicholas Brownlee was excellent in the offstage role of Captain Gardiner — who offers Ahab a final, spurned chance to demonstrate his humanity. Grant Gershon’s men’s chorus was spot on.

Good as the singing and the playing is, the staging and projections make the show here. The traveling production incorporates what my '60s mind can only perceive as a massive light show, turning the stage from a superimposed mariner’s chart into heaving storms that overwhelm the men crammed into their  virtual whaleboats. Robert Brill gets the set credits, Gavin Swift and Donald Holder the lighting, Elaine J. McCarthy the projections.

Heggie’s tonal fabric of diverse influences sometimes showed its seams, particularly in certain crisis moments. I was entertained, even inspired, but I don’t recall being particularly moved until the very end of the lengthy, sprawling, seductively melodic work.

Was it perhaps that “Moby Dick” was upstaged by its own spectacular staging? Swept up as I was in the enormous production values, I sometimes wondered how "Moby Dick’’ would fare if mounted in a simple concert presentation, where it would have to stand alone as music and drama.

(*Enchant. — Ed.)

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