Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: 7:30pm Tues 30th August, Thurs 1st and Sat 3rd September 2011
Duration: 3hrs incl interval
Tickets: adult $55-170/conc $45-140/student (seats in Grand Circle only) $23.30
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or http://www.bass.net.au
Composer, Jake Heggie's, Dead Man Walking was a big hit with Adelaide audiences a few years ago and, judging by the response to the opening night performance, his latest opera is set to be an even bigger hit. Gene Scheer's libretto draws dialogue directly from Hermann Melville's 1851 novel. The opera was premièred by the Dallas Opera on 30th April 2010 and, after this season, will then go to San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera and Calgary Opera. It was jointly commissioned by these opera companies in conjunction with State Opera of SA.
The opera takes place aboard the three masted whaler, the Pequod, where Captain Ahab seeks the white whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg in a previous encounter. His obsession gives rise to conflicts with his crew and it is the interpersonal relationships between crew members that is what makes both the novel, and the opera, a classic.
As the overture begins a dot of light appears, then a few more, then more again until we we see a star-filled night sky. Lines appear, joining the dots into constellations and, as we recall the times when seamen used to stars to navigate by, the lines suddenly join together to form a whaler coming straight towards us over the waves, turning as it passes across our bows then, as the scrim curtain rises, the ship is recreated in the set behind it as we find ourselves on the deck of the Pequod. There could hardly be a more exciting and captivating start to an opera than this, and my description captures very little of the experience of actually seeing it happen. All this, and we are only a few minutes into the opera, with so much more to come.
The staging of this opera is remarkable with a set that finds people up to ten metres above the stage on an almost vertical wall, leaping off of their perches and sliding down to the ground when their boat capsizes, people climbing high above the stage into the rigging, the young cabin boy, Pip, having been thrown into the sea, swimming for his life in raging seas, whalers melting blubber in a cauldron to get oil, the fire so hot that it looks like a room in Hades, handfuls of men in small sea-boats harpooning whales, and so much more.
The seamless combination of projections, the physical set and live action is astounding, seeming to blend opera with theatre, circus, cinema and visual art into a multimedia extravaganza. It has to be seen to believed. If it were not for the power of the music and the superb performances it might have overwhelmed the production, but that did not happen, instead it became an equal part of a greater whole.
Set designer, Robert Brill, costume designer, Jane Greenwood, projection designer, Elaine McCarthy, lighting designer, Donald Holder, revival projection designer, Shawn Boyle and revival lighting designer, Gavan Swift make up the team responsible for the amazing visual side of this production. The visual side is not confined just to the physical set, but includes people, with choreographer, Keturah Stickann, and fight and action choreographer, Nino Pilla, adding more movement energy. They keep the cast and, especially, the fifteen supernumeraries very busy from start to finish, climbing all over the ropes and masts and sliding down the decks of the Pequod.
Right from the start, the darkly magnificent music, played by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at their very best, conjured up images of people, places and events in Melville's powerful tale, working hand in glove with what we see and hear on stage. We first see Queequeg, the heavily tattooed cannibal from the South Seas island of Kokovoko, sitting and praying in his own language. Bass, Jonathon Lemalu, is everything you would want in the character of Queequeg, strong, quietly commanding, his superb voice echoing in very corner of the theatre.
His chant awakens Greenhorn (Ishmael), a role in which tenor, James Egglestone shines, bringing a complex and sympathetic portrayal of the first time whaler to the role. These two develop a deep friendship as Greenhorn questions his religion and finds a greater spirituality in the heathen religion of Queequeg. There are some wonderfully warm moments between these two. The first line of the novel “Call me Ishmael”; is the final line of the opera, sung with a great poignancy as Greenhorn clings to the floating coffin, prepared for Queequeg when it was thought that he was going to die.
Another pairing, with a far from warm relationship, is that between Captain Ahab and the first mate, Starbuck. Jay Hunter Morris stomps around on his peg-leg giving us a cold and calculating man whose single minded obsession is frighteningly displayed in his performance. He barely hides his insanity at the start, but it slowly reveals itself more and more as he gets closer to his quarry.
Grant Doyle shows us all of the pain and frustration that Starbuck feels as he tries to fight the Captain's insane chase, at the exclusion of all else, even attempting to ignore other pods of whales in his haste, giving in after three months and allowing the men to hunt when there is a scent of mutiny in the air, because the men are only paid on a share of the catch.
Flask's boat is wrecked as they hunt, and the cabin boy Pip is lost. Ahab orders them to set sail but Starbuck refuses. Starbuck stands up to him, resulting in the Captain threatening to kill him. Ahab, backs down when word goes around that Pip has been seen and is rescued. Later, he comes close to killing Ahab as he sleeps, but refrains.
Byron Watson, as Stubb, and Adam Goodburn, as Flask give some fine supporting performances and soprano, Lorena Gore, as the cabin boy, Pip, is lively and manages to sing beautifully even when suspended on a cable when fighting the waves having been swept overboard.
Leonard Foglia's direction keenly finds all of the issues that arise when a large and disparate group of men are confined together for an extended period of time and shows them with a great understanding of humanity. There are issued of sexuality and religion in Melville's writing that are handled well by Foglia who approaches them with a light but fearless touch.
All of the smaller roles have been well cast, with more great work from Andrew Turner, as Daggoo, Douglas McRae, as Tashtego, Gerard Schneider, as a Nantucket Sailor , James Scott, as a Spanish Sailor and a wonderfully concerned father in search of his son is presented by Douglas McNicol, as Captain Gardiner.
Conductor and chorus master, Timothy Sexton, now also the Artistic Director and CEO of State Opera, is in full control of the entire musical side of the production and draws out all of nuances in the rich orchestration, and establishes the marvellous male voice choir work of the State Opera Gentlemen's Chorus. His contribution cannot be underestimated in such a massive undertaking and, if this is a sign of things to come, the company and the future of opera in Adelaide is in very capable hands. Musically, this production has everything from dramatic highlights, to gently lyrical passages and lighter, humorous moments, such as when the men dance together. Sexton discovers the importance all of these moments and the orchestra, the soloists and the chorus are all clearly giving their best under his unerring guidance.
If you have never seen an opera before, because you have incorrectly assumed that they are dull, highbrow, boring and impossible to understand, then go to see this one and discover just how wrong you are. This modern masterpiece is a sensational event from every viewpoint and will appeal to both newcomers and long term lovers of opera. Whatever you do, do not miss this thoroughly rewarding production.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.