By Patrick O’Brien
In some respects, it’s remarkable it’s taken this long for someone to turn Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into a full-fledged, full-throated, red-blooded opera., the outsized medium being a viable match for the outsized novel.
On the other hand, the immortal story of Captain Ahab’s unhinged pursuit of the dread white whale has done all right without a musical score, secure in its reputation as a bona fide classic. Between the novel and its many adaptations across different media, the foolhardy composer and librettist would have a field day not only trying to match Melville’s briny genius, but simply distilling the damn thing down into a sensible runtime.
Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby Dick opera, then, is as rare and fine a sighting as the white whale itself: on first hearing, it’s clear it’s made the operatic canon.
Key to this Moby Dick is its motion and relentless claustrophobia. This Pequod never stops moving forward, its crew all alone on the open sea. The tension’s always high, even in scenes where shipboard languor sets in. Any minute now, they’ll sight a pod of whales. Or a squall. Or Ahab will skulk the deck, nail a doubloon to the mast, and call it his price on the whale that tore off his leg. Even at its pokiest, Heggie’s turbulent, harmonically rich score delves the deep, bringing these characters’ complex inner lives off the page and with glorious voice. (Maestra Lidia Yankovskaya returns to the podium and keeps the pace with authority.)
Due credit to Scheer’s libretto, too, drawn heavily from the novel. So deft is his adaptation that when the first words out of anyone’s mouth aren’t “Call me Ishmael,” you don’t miss them. When those words do come up, it’s haunting.
As the haunting and haunted Ahab, if Richard Cox wasn’t in boldest voice — if he wasn’t the madman we might expect him to be — his glowering presence surely compensated for it. His quieter and more introspective moments, wherein he ponders the choices that effectively render this whaling expedition a suicide mission, were then surely more disquieting than any amount of ranting or raving.
The prize for boldest voice goes to Aleksey Bogdanov as first mate Starbuck, whose central aria brings him to the brink of mutiny and the first act to a fitting conclusion. Most heartbreaking: Andrew Bidlack as Greenhorn, a listless boy who finds a sense of purpose and friendship just before everything goes belly-up.
Especially advantageous for a new opera, the piece’s epic scale can be telescoped to fit a number of spaces. Following more elaborate productions in Dallas, this Chicago outing (designed and co-produced by Utah Opera, among others) only needs a sweeping map backdrop, a star guide, and a towering mast to set the scene.
It’ll be a banner year for Heggie in Chicago, between this production and Lyric’s upcoming Dead Man Walking, the opera that made him a name to watch. With Moby Dick, he has is now secure in his own right as a premiere musical dramatist. And Chicago Opera Theater is secure in its reputation as the place to go for operatic adventure.
“Moby Dick” repeats Sunday, April 28, at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph St. Tickets ($45-145) are available on the Chicago Opera Theater website or by calling (312) 704-8420. Photos by Michael Brosilow.