Here’s a fact. Keeping up a blog, even with the low threshold of three-four posts per month, is hard. I had a nice steady flow going in December and January, but it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted, and the guilt it awful. Perhaps I’ve been overthinking it. My intention–in general–is to do advance leg work and to post well enough in advance of an upcoming production driving distance from CLE (or Met in HD) to have a chance of influencing someone to give the opera a try. Well, I missed the boat with Pittsburgh Opera’s marvelous production of Moby Dick. That ship has sailed. (OK, enough seafaring puns.) The production wrapped up on Sunday, March 25, so it’s too late to encourage you to go see it this time around, but I’m telling you, this is an opera that’s going to have some staying power. This is a rare contemporary opera that I feel confident is going to become a fixture in the standard repertoire.
Eight things I loved about Pittsburgh’s Moby Dick:
- The libretto is great. Gene Scheer has managed to turn this behemoth of a novel into a crisp script that covers a lot of ground in just about two-and-a-half hours. He does this by choosing just four days from the many months out at sea, four days that get to the heart of the Pequod‘s doomed voyage, selected to set the scene, show the passage of time, the restlessness of the crew, and the mania of their captain. And to get us to the fateful day when the crew finally meets the whote whale—and its fate.
- The music is great, and–pleasant surprise–a lot more melodious than a lot of contemporary writing. Jake Heggie, who also composed the opera version of Dead Man Walking, is the real deal. With just two lulls, one in each act, Heggie’s score drives this intense sea journey inexorably to its tragic conclusion.
- The set was amazing. Check out the picture above. The main mast dominates the stage, letting us know we’re on a ship and creating a whole new plane for action. The mast is surrounded by a turntable that was able to be moved qucikly not only to suggest a variety of spaces but also to create a sense of fast action during whale chase scenes. The surrounding map of the world and dynamically lit sky made for a truly captivating backdrop for the action.
- Key performers were excellent. Lead tenor Roger Honeywell, whose brooding Ahab lumbers slowly along in Act I, picked this piece up and carried in on his back in Act II. In a chilling depiction of how easily a charismatic leader can lead a mob toward his goals, Ahab (below left) whips his crew into a frenzied chant of “Kill Moby Dick.” Baritone Michael Mayes (below right, top) was amazing as Starbuck. For me, the heart of the show was Starbucks’s aria at the end of Act I–the moral heart of the piece, and the moment of greatest heartbreak–when he comes upon a sleeping Ahab and passes on the opportunity to save the crew by murdering the captain. If only he had been able to stop Ahab’s manic quest here. Finally, the relationship between Greenhorn (whom readers know as Ishmael) and Queequeg was tenderly rendered by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana.
- Use of dancers was very cool, especially when dancers took “thrown” harpoons in hand and leapt across the stage with them to suggest the trajectory of the harpoons and the subsequent “sleigh ride.”
- A few more personal notes. A personal highlight was taking my friend Mark to his first live opera and having him enjoy it.
- Sitting next to the lovely Ashley Fabian, a soprano and resident artist who will sing Gretel in the main stage production of Hansel & Gretel in the fall. We just by chance ended up seated next to her, and she was gracious enough to chat with us before the curtain rose and during intermission, offering us an insider’s insight. I’m hopeful The Opera Evangelist’s readers will get to know Ashley (left) via a guest post this fall!
- Having attended the workshop for educators with the amazing Marilyn Egan (below right), I really knew what to expect going in. Advance preparation really does enhance the experience, and Marilyn does a great job.
Having attended four operas in Pittsburgh over the past few years, Pittsburgh Opera is starting to feel like a home away from home. It’s an easy drive from Cleveland, and if you can get past all the Steelers garb, Pittsburgh’s a really fun city. I recommend putting an upcoming production at Pittsburgh Opera on your calendar!
–All production photos David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera.