Whatever your history with Moby-Dick—even if you were a disgruntled teenager on a forced English-class march through Herman Melville’s dense, digressive, and interminable 19th-century novel—I’m recommending Chicago Opera Theater’s current production of the 2010 opera version of this American classic. It’s a powerful experience, well worth chasing down.
Composer Jake Heggie has found the musical equivalent of Melville’s rich prose in his roiling and sparkling orchestral score, while librettist Gene Scheer perfectly captures the book’s original tone and language, even as he drops the first-person narration. (Seen the movies? Scheer’s tight storytelling improves upon the film condensations of the book.) And when the curtain goes up, there’s an ingenious set by Erhard Rom, a versatile single unit that puts cast and audience afloat in a wide ocean, on a spinning planet, under a vast sky.
The huge cast, including an excellent 38-member chorus that makes up the crew of the ill-fated ship Pequod, is—with one exception—entirely male. Tenor Richard Cox, navigating an ornery, Britton-influenced vocal line along with a wooden leg, is a complex Captain Ahab, hell-bent on wreaking vengeance on the albino whale that took his limb. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as his agonized first mate, Starbuck, delivers some of the opera’s most lyrical and memorable moments while debating whether or not to kill him in a full-blown, old-fashioned first-act aria. Sweet-voiced tenor Andrew Bidlack is winning as the naive youngster, Greenhorn (aka Ishmael), as is bass-baritone Vince Wallace as his newfound best friend, Queequeg. The single woman in the cast, Summer Hassan, is the ship’s boy, Pip; she contributes a beautifully contrasting soprano.
COT music director Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts a 60-piece orchestra; Kristine McIntyre stage directs. This coproduction with four other opera companies is a major undertaking for COT and one of its best ever. But the two-performance run is as fleeting as the sighting of a spout on the horizon; your only remaining opportunity to catch it is Sunday. v