MOBY-DICK: Majestic homecoming at The Dallas Opera

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Jay Hunter Morris, as Captain Ahab, urges his men to find the great white whale in The Dallas Opera’s current production of “Moby-Dick.” (Dallas Opera Photo by Karen Almond)

After making its world premiere in Dallas in 2010, Jack Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “Moby-Dick,” the glorious adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novel, has traveled around the world, lowering anchor in San Francisco, San Diego, Australia, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

It has also been presented on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

This month, the powerful production comes home to The Winspear Opera House for six performances.

The mulit-sensory experience begins with a dreamy overture and a night sky that magically morphs into the hull of The Pequod, a whaling ship whose captain is obsessed in his quest of the great white whale that took his leg.

Robert Brill, set designer, Gavan Smith, lighting designer and Elaine J. McCarthy, projection designer, have created a magnificent vessel, complete with masts and crow’s nests for singers to climb, making use of every inch of the Winspear’s huge stage.

They created smaller whale boats for the men to use while chasing their prey.

The orchestra, expertly led by Emmanuel Villaume, laid the perfect foundation so singers could dig deep into Heggie’s lush score.

The music doesn’t feel modern – or what I think of as modern –  it could have been commissioned in 1851 by Melville himself. The only concession to modernism is that the opera is sung in English.

Dallas has embraced Villaume – with good reason. He brings energy and passion to the podium and he pushes his artists to excel. His handling of the huge chorus’ in “Eugene Onegin” and “Moby-Dick” was clearly on point, as they delivered masterful, moving performances.

Hats off to Chorus Master Alexander Rom for preparing the men’s chorus for their demanding roles in “Moby-Dick.” I was certain the roof was going to blow off when the guys went into full flight during Sunday’s matinee. And I mean that in the best way possible.

Not only were these guys required to sing, they had to navigate a raked stage, towers and precarious perches that serve as seats on smaller boats. I held my breath more than once as they slid from the high places on the bow of the boat down to the stage floor.

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Jay Hunter Morris, a Paris native, has made the role of Captain Ahab his own. (Dallas Opera Photo by Karen Almond)

While he didn’t originate the role, Paris native Jay Hunter Morris has become the quintessential Captain Ahab. Morris deftly handles the difficult score, his descent into madness and destructive obsession with the whale perfectly timed and completely believable.

Note: Morris sings, acts and moves around stage on a real peg leg. Not exactly sure how they rigged the prosthesis, but it was certainly effective.

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Morgan Smith, in the role of Starbuck, tugs at the heart strings as he longs for the comfort of his wife and young son. (Dallas Opera Photo by Karen Almond)

Serving as Ahab’s opposite and the ship’s lone voice of reason is Starbuck. Morgan Smith’s plaintive baritone breaks your heart as he pleads with his captain to return home to Nantucket so he can be with his wife and young son.

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Tenor Stephen Costello, a Dallas favorite, sings the role of Greenhorn in “Moby-Dick.” The opera’s final moments belong to him. (Dallas Opera Photo by Karen Almond)

Stephen Costello, another Dallas favorite, sings the role of Greenhorn. This is, by far, Costello’s most secure role.

He has a terrific instrument, but sometimes in the past, he has seemed anxious, resulting in a strained sound.

During Sunday’s matinee, he exuded confidence and serenity. His arias soared and his ensemble work settled nicely with the other voices.

The final moments of the opera belong to Costello, who handles the emotional closing with great care.

Musa Mgqungwana embodied Queequeg, the Polynesian sailor whose humanity shines in the midst of the ship’s bloodlust.

Jacqueline Echols, in the pants roll (a woman singing a young boy/man’s part) of the doomed Pip, stood out among the male voices, not an easy feat with this group.

The opera is divided into two acts, each lasting more than an hour, with one intermission. The first act seemed slow in places, but the second act moved quickly through fire, catastrophe and the penultimate showdown between man and beast.

If you’ve wanted to see an opera, but have held back, “Moby-Dick” is a great way to dip your toes into this world. It touches every aspect of entertainment. It’s visually stunning, well written, sung and acted and it presents the universal story of man’s need to control nature.

Bravo, TDO. Bravo.

*********************

There are three more performances of “Moby-Dick,” Nov. 12, 18 and a matinee on Nov. 20. Tickets begin at $19. Call the box office at 214-443-1000. The Winspear is located at 2403 Flora Street in the Arts District of Downtown Dallas.

 

 

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