Moby-Dick: Dramatic opera on the high seas

A scene from “Moby Dick” at the Harris Theater, presented by Chicago Opera Theater.
(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “Moby-Dick”
Where: Harris Theater (205 E. Randoph St.)
When: Through Apr. 28
Tickets: ChicagoOperaTheater.org

One of the great operas of our century has belatedly arrived in Chicago. “Moby-Dick,” by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, based on the classic novel by Herman Mellville, debuted in Dallas in 2010 and is now being presented by Chicago Opera Theater for two performances only.

COT’s “Moby-Dick” is a winning operatic experience with stimulating music and touching portrayals, all against the backdrop of an epic sea story. COT has assembled a large cast and a good-sized orchestra who all contribute to an astonishing night at the opera.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, COT’s music director, got things off to a propitious start on opening night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Thursday, with orchestral sound that began quietly, establishing a mood of eeriness and hinting at the adventure and danger to come. All night long the sound from the pit was glorious, from playful allurings to leviathanic threats.

Tenor Richard Cox as Ahab follows in the footsteps of Ben Heppner (for whom Heggie wrote the role and who created Ahab in the world premiere in Dallas) and Jay Hunter Morris who appeared as Ahab in San Francisco when the opera was videotaped for PBS’s “Great Performances.” Cox has a mighty physical presence and he sports Ahab’s stump — worn since the great whale took his leg off at the knee — with ease and without shame. But his musical portrayal was at times pale and lacking in intensity, so that Ahab’s monomania seems merely one of the buttons on his jacket. It is only through the crew that the majesty of the story shines through.

The slack is taken up by baritones Aleksey Bogdanov as Starbuck and Andrew Bidlack as Greenhorn. Bogdanov sings with power and authority; as Ahab’s second in command, his Starbuck is always an exciting presence on stage. His simmering anger propels him to thoughts of murder, in order to save the Pequod and its crew, and certainly to save his own skin. And he sings with notable tenderness when remembering his wife and child.

Bidlack’s performance draws out the sensitivity of Greenhorn, and he conveys both innocence and fear with grace. As Ahab becomes more obsessed and loses control, Greenhorn grows in confidence, and more importantly, in empathy. Bidlack’s ability to convey all the colors of the music is outstanding.

Baritone Vince Wallace is a robustious Queequeg, the Polynesian sailor who befriends Greenhorn. He sings with vigor and comports himself stylishly.

Summer Hassan is the only woman in the cast, taking on the trouser role of the cabin boy Pip. She has a luminescent soprano and cavorts about the stage with childlike enthusiasm.

The smaller roles are also excellently cast. Tenor Christopher Magiera is moving as Gardiner, the captain of another ship who has lost his young son at sea. Bass David Govertsen brings humor as Stubb.

The nearly 40-strong male chorus is fantastic, whether singing off-stage, or sailoring on deck. The four dancers are marvelous, making you wish they had been employed more aggressively.

Visually, this production is far less flashy than its famous predecessors. It takes what I call a Book Jacket Approach: it is suggestive of various things, even if oddly juxtaposed. In this opera, the various elements are all related to sea-faring, but are employed semi-abstractly. When the opera opens, the sky is represented by sea-charts of the stars and the sides of the Pequod feature one large map of the earth. These maps help to convey the huge expanse of the ocean on which the Pequod sails. Set designer Erhard Rom has created a huge mast as the most imposing feature. Situated around this is a circular piece, like a saucer under a cup, that revolves around the mast. At times it serves as the prow of a satellite boat of the Pequod, so that we have a ship within a ship. This can be a little confusing, but is not a major flaw. Strangely, the various backdrops (the star map, a cloudy sky, the ocean itself) appear, to employ Melville’s word, unsmoothable. They are full of creases or bubbles, which detracts occasionally from the atmosphere.

Director Kristine McIntyre does a creditable job, but she leaves a lot of the dramatic work to the music. As the score can take the weight, this too is not a major flaw.

All told, this is a fine opera, full of turbulence and anxiety with the music rendered nearly always at the highest level. There is only one performance left (Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.). Who knows when you will next have a chance to see this great American opera.