Left – James Egglestone and Jonathan Lemalu. Cover – Grant Doyle. Photos – Photografeo Pty Ltd
The Australian premiere of the opera Moby Dick by American composer Jake Heggie has been eagerly anticipated in Australia. This modern opera is a novelty within a limited repertoire which Australian opera companies have to stick to, because most of their funding comes from the box office.
Fresh off its world premiere in Dallas in 2010, Moby Dick is spectacular. The immense power of the work is a result of creative collaboration between composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Bill, costume designer Jane Greenwood, projection designer Elaine McCarthy, lighting designer Donald Holder, and a group of musicians and other specialists. This is also reflected in the way The Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera, State Opera of South Australia and their patrons cooperated to fund the opera.
Moby Dick is a rendition of the famous novel of the same name by Herman Melville, first published in 1851. The opera offers viewers a different experience of the famous fable or takes them on a journey of discovery if they have not read the book.
Quasi-cinematic in both its orchestral writing and mise-en-scène, Moby Dick has the ambition to lead the operatic genre into the future. The wild movement of the sea and the vast universe of human emotion are central to the musical rendition of the story. They are effectively captured by imaginative poetic language which flows into musical and stage metaphors. The musical language has been inspired by Philip Glass, Benjamin Britten and, one of Starbuck’s arias by Puccini, yet it is beguilingly unique.
The South Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Timothy Sexton delivered the score with refined delicacy and dynamic force. In the role of Captain Ahab, Jay Hunter Morris embodied a man obsessed by revenge for whom ‘loveliness is anguish’. The singer negotiated well the costume demand of having to sing on one leg and the difficulty of the vocal writing. Grant Doyle’s Starbuck was a strong antagonist both vocally and histrionically.
James Egglestone’s lyric tenor line was the focus of his portrayal of Greenhorn, the sailor wanting ‘to escape the dark November in [his] sale’ and the sole survivor in the story. The emotion he was able to project with his singing was a welcome poetic contrast, although his movement and gestures could be more realistic. Jonathan Lemalu’s bass-baritone and commanding stage presence in the role of the harpooner Queequeg brought him the largest ovations.
The State Opera Gentlemen’s Chorus had an appealing strength of resonance and characterised well sailors of different ages, stature and personality. The chorus ‘Lost in the heart of the sea’ was magical.
Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is an American Romantic novel but there is nothing romantic about it. The audience enters the world of men who pursue profit by killing whales and get killed by a deluded leader. Men sailors, their bodies, voices, clothes, objects, movements and dances dominate the stage. There is only one woman in the opera, nevertheless in a trouser role. Lorina Gore portrayed the boy Pip so well that it was only her soprano voice that gave some relief from the monotony of the all-male cast.
Whaling and its ferocious violence is represented so well in the opera; one wonders whether it is a coincidence that this subject has been taken by an Australian opera company after Australia took legal action against Japan’s slaughtering of whales in the Southern Ocean in 2010. Despite its sea imagery and the musical topoi it calls for, the Moby Dick material is a dangerous choice for an opera.
The opera does not have a love story to provide impetus for vocal variety. Although impressive by size and vocal strength, the male cast needed more diversity of vocal timbre. Male voices such as the countertenor and the bass could have added depth and additional points of symbolism.
Robert Bill’s set invites the audience on deck of the ship Pequod and makes them part of the action. Projections onto the set transform it into waves and water and outline floating boats. In the second half, the set opens its belly to a view of the bloody whale oil extraction process.
The whale is a phantom that never appears on stage. Moby Dick remains an allusive creature in this opera and a metaphor for human desire and obsession. Western patriarchal existence and its vices are illustrated and criticised to perfection in this work – a story that has been told many times in different ways. At the end of the opera, the audience is shipwrecked, guilty and gasping for answers which are never provided. It is questionable whether this plot provides all that a modern opera needs to tell a compelling story which gives hope and means of neutralising the stiffening grip of desire.
A co-production between Dallas Opera, State Opera of South Australia, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera and Calgary Opera
Composer Jake Heggie | Librettist Gene Scheer
Director Leonard Foglia
Venue: Festival Theatre
Dates/Times: 27, 30 August, 1, 3 September, 2011 @ 7.30pm
Tickets: $55.00 – $45.00
Bookings: BASS 131 246 | http://www.bass.net.au
Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia