SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah Opera kicked off its 40th season last fall, its opera selection was rooted in tradition: The company performed Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” — the very opera that got the organization on its feet in 1977. Set in 19th-century Paris, the romantic story of “La Boheme” offers a stark contrast to the ominous 19th-century American tale of “Moby-Dick,” which Utah Opera premiered at Capitol Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 20.
But another fundamental difference between Puccini’s opera and “Moby-Dick,” which Dallas Opera premiered in 2010, is that with the former, you don’t have to worry about the composer showing up to the performance.
As the long, brooding journey aboard the Pequod came to a close Saturday night, Utah Opera cast members were joined onstage by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. If having the creators of the opera in attendance opening night instilled additional pressure on the performers, that pressure only seemed to work in the their favor, as the cast transformed Herman Melville’s lengthy novel into a captivating, albeit dark, journey to hunt down Capt. Ahab’s nemesis, the massive white whale known by the name of Moby-Dick.
It didn’t take long for Utah Opera’s production, under the guidance of stage director Kristine McIntyre, to take on a dark, almost cultlike feeling. Heggie’s music, simultaneously beautiful and ominous, began telling the story, and within a few minutes, the single-minded Ahab, portrayed in a terrifyingly convincing manner by tenor Roger Honeywell — peg leg and all — had members of his crew surrounding him and repeatedly chanting, “Death to Moby-Dick!”
Well everyone, that is, except for first mate Starbuck, played compellingly by baritone David Adam Moore, whose love and devotion to his family keeps him from blindly following his “commander’s vengeance.” It’s the only opposition Ahab receives aboard the Pequod, and the pair’s complicated friendship reveals to audiences a vulnerable Ahab who begins wondering if his quest has been worth all the anguish — until he finally sights that enormous white whale and all hell breaks loose.
Utah Opera began building the set for “Moby-Dick” last summer, and throughout the production process, the company kept its ideas for rendering the whale onstage a secret. The well-kept secret was worth the wait, as audience members Saturday night got the first glimpse of the mysterious whale in a mysterious way that will not be revealed in this review.
In her telling of Melville’s story, stage director McIntyre made remarkable use of space on and off the stage. Onstage, while aboard the ship’s masthead, a sweet friendship formed between crew member Queequeg, a role charismatically performed by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, and newcomer Greenhorn — a sailor who, in contrast to the novel, doesn’t ask us to call him Ishmael until the very end. Tenor Joshua Dennis was powerful in this role, winning the audience over with his zest for life and search for truth.
In addition to offering stirring vocals on and offstage, the Utah Opera Chorus took part in the rigorous demands of life on the ship, helping to propel the Pequod forward. Also aiding this effort were four dancers from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company — a unique choice from McIntyre — whose choreography, under the direction of Ririe-Woodbury Artistic Director Daniel Charon, contributed to the continual movement and motion of life on the sea.
Another highlight in this predominantly all-male cast was cabin boy Pip, a role energetically portrayed by soprano Jasmine Habersham, who received some of the loudest applause of the evening. The storytelling quality of Heggie’s music also stood out as a character, giving each main sailor aboard the Pequod a chance to shine through a variety of duets, vocally complex solos and moving ensemble numbers led by conductor Joseph Mechavich.
If staging “Moby-Dick” represents a transition for Utah Opera as it begins to embrace a new wave of opera, Saturday night proved that the company is more than ready for the challenge. And if you’ve never been up to the challenge of reading the more-than-700-page epic novel, perhaps Utah Opera’s production of “Moby-Dick” will do the trick.
Content advisory: "Moby-Dick" contains dark themes but nothing of a graphic nature.