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Calgary Opera.

Calgary Opera enjoyed another notable success Jan. 28 with a splashy, visually stunning performance of Moby Dick, a new opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. A setting of Herman Melville's tale of a ship captain's obsession with a whale, the opera is epic in its ambition and scope, the grandeur of the production and the forces it requires on the same scale as the ideas it addresses the nature of obsession, man's hubris in the context of overwhelming nature and the paradoxical and contrasting human elements of unbridled ambition and the search for personal meaning.

Anyone who has read the book can only marvel at the way Sheer managed the libretto, compressing the sprawling story line into a few central incidents that nevertheless successfully give the sense of the extended timeline of the tale and the feeling of time at sea. The libretto also fouses on a few central and contrasted characters, notably the towering figure of Captain Ahab (rendered in iconic terns by tenor Ben Heppner) and the more immediately human-scale figures of First Mate Starbuck (Brett Polegato), a greenhorn sailor (Colin Ainsworth) and the Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg (Justin Welsh). The relationships between these dominate the opera and give it a human dimension.


The use of multi-media technology in opera has opened up new production possibilities. Here the set--the ship Pequod was rendered both realistically through ropes and rigging and also with computergenerated projections. A giant outwardfolding door allowed a double level to the stage. The coordination of projections and physical stage elements was most impressive, making the set a virtual character in the opera, especially in its evocation of the Sea's unfeeling Power, softness and terror.

While there is much theatrical incident in the well-written scenes for the chorus, much of the opera is Wagnerian insofar as it focuses on the inner life and reflections of the individual characters. There is much ins and reflection, and the piece proceeds musically in a series o numbers--solos, duets, ensembles--with a delicate array of changing leitmotifs to unify the score, The music draws on Wagner via Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass's minimalism to provide a sense of epic scope. For viewers accustomed to the pacing of Puccini's Tigaridot or Britten's Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, the opera unfolds quite naturally It builds to a shattering climax that is reinforced by one of its best scenes--an extended duet in which the Captain and Starbuck appear to reach an understanding almost before Ahab then sights Moby Dick.

Heggie's score shows considerable sophistication, not least in its marvelous evocation of the sea. Overall, the music composed for Starbuck, the Greenhorn and Queequeg is the most appealing and convincing, their passions, uncertainties and emotions rendered musically to individuate their characters. Ahab's music is more of a problem. The role is of Wagnerian proportions in its demands, and Ben Heppner, despite occasional uncertain moments, rose magnificently to the challenge. For me, however, the vocal writing had a neutral emotional impact, and despite Ahab's authoritative presence, he remained a musical enigma.

In terms of performance, however, the production could hardly be bettered. Polegato seems to go from triumph to triumph, and I have never heard him so completely successful as in this very human and vocally superb rendition of Starbuck. Ainsworth's portrayal of the greenhorn was also first class, his singing plangent in tone when needed and also sweetly seductive in the portrayal of the character's inner uncertainties. He was also effective in his duets with Queequeg. While not given as much music as the other roles, both words and music for Queequeg are very individual and establish his character quickly. Justin Welsh brought a finely drawn vocal technique to the role, the voice even throughout the registers and well projected. Dramatically, Welsh realized Queequeg exceptionally well, a major accomplishment as a singing actor.

The smaller roles were also well handled, with Lisa DiMaria cleartoned and pert in the pants role of Pip, a needed contrast in an otherwise all-male cast. Both Robert Clark and Peter McGillivray were bluff and hearty as Flask and Stuff, and added the right comic touch to the drama.The chorus delivered one of its best performances in recent productions, the power of its final set number, just before the tragedy, impressive in its boldness and conviction.

The orchestra, crisply led by Joseph Mechavich, provided all the sounds of the sea, idiomatically rendering the often movie-like sound-scape. Indeed, this element is so pronounced that one wonders if the score was conceived as much as a cinematic sound-scape as a conventional opera score.

With Harry Frehner's expert lighting complementing the equally expert handling of the well-coordinated stage action by director Leonard Foglia, few could deny the importance and evident success of this staging. There was a great deal to enjoy in the production and much that was impressive to see and hear.
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Author:DeLong, Kenneth
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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