Chicago Opera Theater presents MOBY DICK Review – Muscular, Magical

You have to wait until the very end of Composer Jake Heggie and Librettist Gene Scheer’s MOBY DICK to hear the ever so famous opener of Herman Melville’s novel, “Call me Ishmael”.  That it comes in Chicago Opera Theater’s (COT) production from the sweet tenor voice of Andrew Bidlack as Greenhorn, makes it tingle the air all the more.

How fitting though to end with the beginning, in the style of fileting the novel like a speared whale, turning its guts inside out to get at its valuable core.  For the whalers it was the oil rendered from blubber that was treasure; for Heggie and Scheer it is the rich psychological terrain mined from Melville’s operatic sized story.

Not a psychological thriller because you always know Moby Dick wins in the end, it is rather a deep dive into when obsession crosses a line into madness.  It’s as though Scheer took the classic Ahab and gave him a modern feel by spying in on him spilling his guts about being “dismasted” on a Freudian psychoanalyst’s couch.   For fans of Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer, Scheer’s libretto is an especially rich sequel.

Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK
Aleksey Bogdanov (Starbuck). Foreground: Richard Cox (Captain Ahab).
Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK
From left to right: Keanon Kyles (Dagoo), Joachim Luis (Tashtego), Richard Cox (Captain Ahab), Vince Wallace (Queequeg).
Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK
From left to right: Keanon Kyles (Dagoo), Joachim Luis (Tashtego), Richard Cox (Captain Ahab), Vince Wallace (Queequeg).

Heggie opens the score with an almost quiet contemplation of the sea, which you too might admire even more when the orchestra under Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya pours out turbulent storms. Every once in a while there is a fleeting phrase in the score with almost déjà vu familiarity of an aria Pavorotti might have sung, or even a show tune, but before this writer could register the when/where, it would be washed away by other musical currents rising in a new wave.  The duets between Vince Wallace as Queequeg and Bidlack as Greenhorn and Ahab and Starbuck near the finale were especially moving, and went a long way to defining the themes of the work.  COT regulars may be especially thrilled to learn that both Russian-American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov who played Starbuck, and aforementioned Andrew Bidlack, will be returning to COT’s stage in their next season.

It is the muscular male chorus – sometimes center stage and sometimes off stage—that perhaps most impresses.  If the Soviet Army Chorus were unleashed to sing a wider range of melodies that weren’t all about military conquest and glory, one imagines they might sound just like this.

This was the second and final performance of COT’s Moby Dick, and two key roles were played by understudies—Alex Boyer as Captain Ahab and Nick Ward as Stubb. Save the announcements, there would be no way to know that they were the covers.  Heggie’s Ahab seems to be an especially challenging role.  He so often sings so sweetly and melodiously, and yet always has to project himself as the top dog I-am-the-decider presence. Having heard in the COT’s Moby Dick preview of how Alex Boyer has physically endured the great pains of training to sing and walk with peg leg for so many years now, one can’t help but imagine his strong performance was an especially meaningful personal triumph.  Did we detect a tear or two in his curtain bow, with leg newly unleashed from its peg girdle but still in compression socks to prevent clotting?  Nick Ward’s glee at his chance to be Stubb shined to the upper balcony’s last row.   Is it loyal or disloyal to fantasize that these two great performances were actually pre-planned by a COT with great heart? BRAVO! BRAVO!

Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK
Richard Cox (Captain Ahab) and Aleksey Bogdanov (Starbuck).

For many in the audience however, the star among stars is likely the design team. Jessica Jahn’s costumes are detailed to the max.  We can’t see all the period perfect buttons the cast is wearing, but you know the singers can, and you can imagine them getting in the mood to perform as they move them into place.  David Jacque’s lighting makes the waves move and the blubber boil along with the music.  Erhard Rom’s nautical map and moving mast is at times the ship deck, its down below, and smaller boats, often moved by the cast and especially the four agile dancers. When the set morph culminates in a dramatic transform to be Moby Dick’s hungry eye, it’s hard not to gasp.

Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK
Andrew Bidlack (Greenhorn) and Vince Wallace (Queequeg).
Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK
The way in which the spectacular set morphs to carry us through the many chapters of the story is ever remarkable
Chicago Opera Theater MOBY DICK

Cast:

Captain Ahab..........................Richard Cox
Starbuck ..........................Aleksey Bogdanov
Queequeg ..........................Vince Wallace
Greenhorn..........................Andrew Bidlack
Pip..........................Summer Hassan
Flask .......................... Aaron Short
Stubb..........................David Govertsen
Gardiner..........................Christopher Magiera+
Tashtego..........................Joachim Luis
Dagoo .......................... Keanon Kyles Spanish
Sailor..........................Aaron Wardell Nantucket
Sailor..........................Justin Berkowitz
Dancers ..........................Casey Hoekstra, Ivory Leonard, Marcellus Burt, Nick Schrier Supers..........................Laura McCormick Scenic
Captain Ahab Cover.........................Alex Boyer
Starbuck Cover .........................Christopher Magiera
Pip Cover......................... Tiana Sorenson
Flask Cover.........................Eric Ferring
Queequeg Cover.........................Derrell Acon
Stubb Cover......................... Nick Ward
Captain Gardiner Cover..........................John Mathieu*
Greenhorn Cover .........................Jared Esguerra

Crew:

Scenic Design......................Erhard Rom
Lighting Design......................David Martin Jacques
Costume Design......................Jessica Jahn
Wig Design......................Rebecca A. Scott
Production Stage Manager......................Anya Plotkin
Chorus Master.......................AJ Keller
Assistant Conductor......................Josh Quinn*
Répétiteurs ...................... Yasuko Oura, Josh Quinn*
Assistant Director/Dance Captain ...................... Dylan Evans
Assistant Stage Managers ...................... Donald Claxon, Adrienne Bader
Technical Director ...................... Rick Combs
Lighting Director/Asst. Lighting Designer ...................... David Bradke
Props Supervisor ...................... Mitchell Ransdell
Wardrobe Supervisor......................Brenda Winstead
Orchestra Contractor......................Ross Beacraf

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

For more information on Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season visit the Chicago Opera Theater website.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

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