The PALS Children’s Chorus under the direction of Andy Icochea Icochea set itself a high bar this past weekend, with four performances of The Tale of Moby Dick by Raoul Gerhringer at the Ellsworth Theater at Pine Manor College. This work, an hour long, through-composed opera written with children in mind as both performers and audience members, was musically challenging, to say the least. But, this production was a remarkable achievement, something of which any organization could be deeply proud. The large cast was accompanied by the PALS Chamber Orchestra. They were all spot on.
Gehringer serves as the assistant to the Artistic Director of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and his work was first performed in Vienna’s Musikverein in 2004 by the Vienna Boys’ Choir to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, the work has not been performed again until this year, when both PALS and the Vienna Boys’ Choir have programmed it.
It is easy to see why this might be. The music is not simplified or watered down in any way, and demands both technical and musical skill from the cast. The language is at some times Bergian, at other times Menottian—musical but disjunct, and rhythmically challenging as well. There are also familiar bits, like the well-known sea chanty “Ranzo” woven into a beautiful contrapuntal chorus. Hat’s off to all the soloists for outstanding jobs (the roles were double cast for the four performances, so I’m not sure which person was singing on Sunday afternoon). The only jarring note was the high soprano of Ahab. Written with the VBC’s pure, angelic sound in mind, it’s a little hard to reconcile with the gravelly grumble of Gregory Peck in the same role, or to match it with Ahab’s tortured soul. Nonetheless, the score was a real vocal workout for all, handily dispatched under Andy Icochea Icochea’s direction.
Also outstanding was the choreography and set/costume design, particularly the ballet of the undersea creatures. Clear umbrellas with a light inside and iridescent ribbons dangling were held aloft by cast members representing jellyfish, children in blue robes with fins on their back and heads represented various fish, and pods of whales were children in black and white. This was really imaginative and beautiful. The single set was transformed from a town on Nantucket to the decks of the Pequod to the 3 whale boats with a minimum of fuss (all stage management provided by the cast). Moby Dick himself was represented by some 40 children in white, in rows of 4-each, undulating with a “head” at the front and a tail at the end, with Ahab borne aloft after his demise. Bravo to stage director Chris O’ Neill.
It was no small feat to condense one of the more dense and meaty works of literature into a single child-friendly-hour, so kudos to librettist Tina Breckwoldt. The story is effectively told in 7 scenes, with a PG ending: with the exception of Ahab, the Pequod sails home under the direction of Starbuck, and all ends in a happy hornpipe dance party.
The only sour note was the difficulty with the sound system, which buzzed and scratched through a good bit of the performance. Words were difficult to understand, and at times the brass section overpowered the singers.
As Executive Director Jill Carrier explained at the beginning of the show, at one point there were 180 children on stage. Impressive as this is, one can imagine the cast of thousands of parents and supporters who must have spent hours bringing this production to life. Bravo to them as well, for not only recognizing and supporting the value of the arts in their children’s lives, but for helping to make such a wonderful and uplifting musical experience possible for the audience.