Moby Dick, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Opera in two acts
By Jake Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer, after the Herman Melville novel
San Francisco
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Oct. 10-Nov. 2, 2012

It always was a whale of a tale, whether on the page, stage or film screen. And now, Herman Melville’s monumental sea saga “Moby-Dick” is an opera, thanks to San Francisco composer Jake Heggie (“Dead Man Walking”) and librettist Gene Scheer, who have set the work to singing without sacrificing the detail and feeling that made it a masterpiece in the first place.

A co-commission, co-production with Dallas Opera (where it premiered in 2010), State Opera of South Australia, San Diego Opera and Calgary Opera, “Moby-Dick” benefits greatly from creative set designs by Robert Brill, Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections and lighting from Gavan Swift and Don Holder. The opening curtain (criss-crossed by moving shipping lanes, sea charts and stars) rises on a stunning construction, all ropes and dark mast. Waves undulate across a rear screen and, when the whalers take to the longboats, there is an amazing virtual effect with light that must be seen to be believed.

Heggie’s music, contemporary but melodic and highly listenable, may have touches of Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten (and, in the chorus “Lost in the Heart of the Sea” a somewhat incongruous hint of operetta), but it is distinctive and his own. Scheer’s libretto is clear — even without the super titles — and uses much of Melville’s original language while moving the plot along at near-gale force.

It’s a story of obsession, as the aging Captain Ahab (the heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris, ably substituting for Ben Heppner) is driven to hunt down the great white whale that cost him a leg on a previous voyage. Such is his influence that the sailors, who originally shipped in hopes of riches from the profitable sale of whale oil, buy into his madness. One of the characters sings “Aye, now all of us are Ahabs.” But what is this struggle really about? Much literary ink has been spilled down the years over the true meaning of the white whale. Is it, as Ahab professes, simply his sworn enemy, a malevolent force of nature? Is it God? Or the devil? The first mate Starbuck (the excellent baritone Morgan Smith), a god-fearing homebody who is the conscience of the piece, regards the big fish as an innocent creature who simply acts out of instinct. And this may be the most relevant interpretation for our own time, which has seen the despoliation of the earth come to the point where nature has begun to fight back.

The sea soon begins to exact a heavy toll on the crew of the Pequod. First the cabin boy Pip (soprano Talise Trevigne in a pants role) goes mad after falling overboard and nearly drowning. Then the captured island prince Queequeg (the excellent Jonathan Lemalu) succumbs to a mysterious malady. A mighty storm and subsequent St. Elmo’s fire demoralizes the crew. And then, in the chase after the whale, the entire crew is lost — except for one who survives to tell the tale. Stephen Costello plays Greenhorn, a newbie who has signed onto the Pequod to find some meaning to life and encounters both nobility and horror in the process, utters the final line of the opera — “Call me Ishmael” — which is the first line of Melville’s book. And Ishmail he is, utterly cast out from the tribe, surviving against all odds.

All the aforementioned singers are superb, anchored by the triumvirate of Ahab, Starbuck and Greenhorn, with fine support by Robert Orth and Matthew O’Neill as mariners. There isn’t a landlubber in the chorus of sailors (under Ian Robertson’s supervision) and conductor Patrick Summers is terrific at the helm. Leonard Foglia serves as both dramaturg and director.

Whenever a new opera comes sailing over the horizon, one wonders if it will still prove seaworthy in 50 years. My guess is that this one will.

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