One white whale
San Francisco Opera's 'Moby-Dick'
by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Opera company premiere of Moby-Dick by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer has finally opened at the War Memorial Opera House, two years and three productions after its world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010. The State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera and San Diego Opera (all co-commissioners with the SFO) have already mounted director Leonard Foglia's magnificent staging to almost universal praise, and local buzz was growing to a deafening peak. It was a heck of an out-of-town tryout, dangerously close to creating an anti-climax, but the wait was worth it. The musicalization of Herman Melville's iconic American novel may not be the Great American Opera, but it is definitely in the running.
Amazingly, the production team has fashioned a cogent and artistically satisfying distillation of a vast and complicated work of prose. The heroic and lyrical aspects of the book have clearly moved the composer to scale the heights, and the terse poetry of Gene Scheer's libretto makes a worthy framework for the meeting of a daunting challenge.
When reviewers call a new opera triumphant or a triumph, I find myself asking, against what? Is it the odds, the economy, or just the perpetual nay-sayers? In the case of Moby-Dick it is all of the above, and you might want to throw in the literary purists as well.
Choosing to end the opera with the famous beginning line of the novel, "Call me Ishmael," is just one of the many coups de theatre achieved throughout an extraordinary realization. Apart from the score itself, the physical production proves to be a breathtaking spectacle. Director and dramaturg Foglia has teamed with cleverly inventive set designer Robert Brill, costume designer Jane Greenwood (sensibly creating traditional designs), evocative lighting designer Gavan Swift and amazing projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy to make a show that continually wows the audience without overwhelming the hard-working performers.
The wonder of Heggie's music is that it could play without the visual trappings and still be powerfully effective. His characteristic sympathy for vocalists is always evident, and his knack for writing a catchy tune is abundantly on display. When the music veers towards high-end Broadway musical territory, at least it is in the direction of Stephen Sondheim and the Richard Rodgers of Carousel. I don't really have a problem with that, and judging by the ecstatic approval of others in the audience, there are few who would make a complaint.
The swell and drama of the orchestral interludes have a symphonic breadth, and conductor Patrick Summers had the Opera orchestra playing with equally symphonic weight. It was a grand night of music, and having a cast so well-rehearsed and suited to their roles only underscored the mastery of the production. Many of the singers were making their SFO debuts, but there is little doubt we will be hearing much more from them in the future.
Perhaps most notably and surprisingly, Scheer's libretto focuses more on relationships and spiritual philosophizing than on Captain Ahab's increasing madness and obsession with the leviathan Moby Dick. It makes Jay Hunter Morris, as the commander of the Pequod, a more sympathetic character, and his soliloquies become more touching than frightening. Morris has the heldentenor chops to dig into the part, as he has proved before in his appearances in the SFO's Ring cycle, but if I could only disagree with Heggie on this one point – I honestly think Ahab should have been a bass.
The moments of great angst and drama just don't have the weight suggested by the orchestral accompaniment. Morris still makes an indelible impression with his acting, and he has a fine voice. He successfully conveys the nuances of the score even when it is robbing his character of dramatic punch.
As Greenhorn, later identified as Ishmael, tenor Stephen Costello has had plenty of time since the Dallas premiere to identify with his role. He is utterly believable and quite touching as a young man who grows to wisdom and spiritual understanding as a result of his experiences at sea.
(Photo: Cory Weaver)
Greenhorn's relationship with the mystical harpooner Queequeg (a wonderful turn by New Zealand-born Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu) has a depth of meaning that provides some of the score's most beautiful duets. Costello and Lemalu make us believe in their mutual respect and curiosity.
American baritone Morgan Smith makes a welcome return to the SFO as Starbuck, singing with power and conviction as the crewman who comes to admire his captain despite his alarming personal demons. As the voice of reason, Heggie and Scheer give Starbuck some moments of anchoring introspection in duets with Ahab, and some effective brief soliloquies.
The cabin boy Pip has become a pants role for soprano Talise Trevigne, and she made her SFO debut to great audience approval. Bright and energetic, with more than a little boyish vulnerability, Trevigne was believable and sympathetic.
The rest of the cast and, notably, the willing and accomplished SFO Chorus (Ian Robertson, Director) followed the excellent physical game-plan provided by movement director and choreographer Keturah Stickann with beautifully rehearsed precision. Their contributions added immeasurably to the incredible visual appeal of the production.
The SFO run will culminate in a taped performance to be aired by PBS on Great Performances sometime in 2013. What a relief! It would be a sin not to share the experience with the rest of the country. Locally, Moby-Dick continues in performances at the War Memorial through Nov. 2.