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LA Opera's 'Moby-Dick' Is A Powerful And Tempestuous Production

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On Grand Avenue, composer Jake Heggie's acclaimed 2010 adaptation of Moby-Dick debuted on Saturday as the second production of the LA Opera season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It is a frequently powerful dramatic rendering of Melville's inexorably assigned novel. Originally commissioned by The Dallas Opera (and previously performed in a handful of other cities), this three-hour production is enhanced by unusually strong visual effects that complement the straightforward narrative of the libretto by Gene Scheer and the tempestuous emotional content of Heggie's score.

The opera's principal strength resides in its distinctively delineated cadre of individual characters occupying close quarters on the Pequod whaling ship under the dubious leadership of Captain Ahab (dramatic tenor Jay Hunter Morris). These include Queequeg (South African bass Musa Ngqungwana), the adventurous tattooed island prince whose bravely plaintive songs of his homeland inspire the ship's Greenhorn (native L.A. tenor Joshua Guerrero) to return there with Queequeg when their sea voyage comes to an end.

Baritone Morgan Smith is especially moving as Starbuck, the ship's mate who considers killing Ahab in order to save the crew from his dangerous obsessions with the titular great white whale. The considerable charm of Jacqueline Echols, the only female singer in the cast, as the cabin boy Pip heightens the foreboding in what anyone even vaguely familiar with the story of Moby-Dick knows is going to come. Morris's Ahab is every bit as maddeningly mad as we would expect from the legendary one-legged sea vigilante, though even his blind rage is also intermittently tempered with clear-eyed self-recognition.

Elaine J. McCarthy's visual projections contextualize Robert Brill's set design by expressively situating the Pequod somewhere out among the starry cosmos as well as at sea. When the great white whale finally arrives, the devastation it wreaks is not merely calamitous, but apocalyptic in its impact.

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The latest offering in the LA Opera company's Contemporary Opera Initiative, Moby-Dick stands resolutely in the grand opera tradition.

Tickets start at $19 for LA Opera's five remaining performances of Moby-Dick through November 28.