Even if they have never read it, most people are at least aware of “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville’s epic 1851 tale of Captain Ahab’s quest to kill the elusive white whale that once cost him part of a leg.
While it is generally acknowledged as one of the great American novels, the question is whether this sweeping tale of obsession and greed, camaraderie and faith could be effectively adapted to the operatic stage.
The answer is a resounding yes, as was made clear Thursday evening by the Chicago Opera Theater’s superb production of Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, with just one more performance that was set for 3 p.m. Saturday.
With more than a dozen stage works including “Dead Man Walking,” which has had 60 productions on five continents since 2000, Heggie ranks among today’s most acclaimed opera composers.
He might not have the most innovative or distinctive voice in the field, but Heggie innately grasps the needs of the theater and knows how to write affecting music that can tell a story in a meaningful, compelling way.
Nowhere is that more true than in “Moby-Dick,” which debuted in 2010 at the Dallas Opera and has been performed by major companies including the San Francisco Opera and the Washington (D.C.) National Opera.
‘Moby-Dick,’ Chicago Opera Theater
When: Thursday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.
Details: (312) 704-8420 or chicagooperatheater.org
It is impossible to consider this opera without acknowledging its obvious forbear, “Billy Budd,” Benjamin Britten’s 1951 adaptation of Melville’s novel about a wrongfully executed sailor. “Moby-Dick” does not match the emotional intensity and bite of that masterwork, but it comes pretty close and is a more-than-worthy descendant.
Given the strength and performance pedigree of this opera, it’s surprising that Lyric Opera of Chicago did not seize claim to its Chicago premiere. Lyric chose instead to perform Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” during its 2019-20 season.
That left an opportunity for the Chicago Opera Theater, and it grabbed it, ambitiously taking part in this co-production with three other American companies and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu.
It takes multiple ingredients for an opera to work, starting with a captivating story, which Moby-Dick” obviously has. But that sprawling novel had to be honed to a usable form, and Gene Scheer, one of today’s go-to librettists, did a first-rate job of conveying its scale and intimacy with vivid, imagistic language.
But most important to any opera is its score, and Heggie has produced some of his finest work here — bright, evocative, accessible music, with dashes of the cinematic and romantic and echoes of Britten.
The composer powerfully shaped the main characters, especially Ahab’s pain and his manic drive, enlivened the crew scenes with jaunty, down-to-earth sea shanties and rose to the big, dramatic moments like the storm with percussion-driven ferocity.
Perhaps most memorable is a gentle, affecting meditation on the sea as night slowly changes to morning. This section and the rest of the score are handsomely realized by the Chicago Opera Theater’s pit orchestra, masterfully led by music director Lidiya Yankovskaya, who never allows the momentum to flag.
Also deserving praise is stage director Kristine McIntyre, who brings the human and moral contradictions into bold relief, investing the characters with depth and poignancy and infusing the ensemble scenes with rollicking movement and energy.
With the help of props like harpoons and massive ropes, scenic designer Erhard Rom potently evokes a ship’s deck with a semi-abstract, semi-circular set lined with an oversized, vintage map of the world and a giant mast. Changing backdrops offer visions of waves and clouds and a chart of the stars, a navigational necessity of the time.
Heading the well-chosen cast, Richard Cox possesses an authoritative stage presence and a tenor voice with the weight and dimension (though there were a few moments of thinness in parts of his upper register) to convey Ahab’s strength, pathos and deluded obsessiveness.
Aleksey Bogdanov more than holds his own as Ahab’s second-in-command Starbuck, with a stentorian baritone and piercing intensity. And bass-baritone Vince Wallace delivers a sensitive, fully realized Queequeg.
With his light and airy tenor voice, Andrew Bidlack touchingly conveys the purity and goodness of Greenhorn, a kind of narrator who emerges as the only survivor of the disastrous encounter with the white whale.
Other standouts included soprano Summer Hassan in the trouser role of Pip, bass-baritone David Govertsen as Stubb and tenor Aaron Short as Flask. Also deserving kudos is the 38-voice chorus.
The audience greeted the opera’s conclusion with an ardent and well-deserved ovation. By any measure, “Moby-Dick” is a defining success in the history of the Chicago Opera Theater.