Performing Arts

Dallas Opera’s ‘Moby-Dick’ still has its original power

The Dallas Opera performs Moby-Dick on Friday night at Winspear Opera House.
The Dallas Opera performs Moby-Dick on Friday night at Winspear Opera House. Dallas Opera via Twitter

It’s not often that an opera by a still-living composer gets multiple go-rounds, but Moby-Dick has pulled off the feat. Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s work was premiered by the Dallas Opera in 2010, subsequently made the rounds internationally, was televised and recorded, and on Friday night was back on the Winspear Opera House stage as the Dallas Opera’s second production of the season.

Those who saw one of the 2010 performances will undoubtedly remember their musical, visual and dramatic power. The current iteration retains those qualities.

The production is essentially the same, with one major difference: the casting. Ahab is now Jay Hunter Morris (rather than the original’s Ben Heppner). Queequag is Musa Ngqungwana (rather than Jonathan Lemalu) and Pip is Jacqueline Echols (instead of Talise Trevigne).

Back from 2010 are Stephen Costello as the Ishmael character and Morgan Smith as Starbuck.

(To those who may object to Scheer’s coining a new name for Melville’s narrator — “Greenhorn” — be patient. “Ishmael” is still there, and the opera hasn’t lost the most famous opening line in American literature: “Call me Ishmael.” Scheer has just found a new — and in my view, quite logical — place for it.)

The cast is strong throughout, with Morris a dominating presence in what seems a vocally challenging role (like Heppner before him, Morris sounded a bit stressed at times). Ngqungwana, Smith and Costello made especially strong impressions.

One new element in this revival is the conducting of Emmanuel Villaume (Patrick Summers was the musical captain for the premiere). The orchestral playing on Friday night — a potent evocation of the sea — added immeasurably to the evening’s drama. Alexander Rom’s chorus was another memorable component.

One distinctly 21st-century element is the high-tech physical production. A whole team of designers, animators, projectionists and programmers creates a high-tech world that keeps the sea a brooding presence and gives the opera’s climactic moments an almost physical power. Leonard Foglia is the impressive director, with Robert Brill, Jane Greenwood, Gavan Swift and Elaine McCarthy as designers of scenery, costumes, lighting and projections, respectively.

Scheer’s libretto remains an impressive feat, condensing Melville’s lengthy and rambling novel into a brief and coherent entity while remaining true to the author in spirit and much detail.

Heggie’s music confirms his reputation as a master of lyric art, pleasing to the ear, gritty when need be and unfailing in its atmospheric mission.

Both he and Scheer were present on Friday night and received a powerfully positive reception. Incidentally, their next opera, It’s a Wonderful Life, will premier on Dec. 2 in Houston.

Moby-Dick will be repeated in the Winspear on Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday and Nov. 18 and 20.

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