Saturday, November 2, 2013

Moby Dick: Great American Novel Becomes a Worthy Opera

Having done well in a handful of productions since its world premiere, last night's offering on Great Performances will hopefully prove Jake Heggie's new opera, Moby Dick to be an instant American operatic classic.

Robert Brill's physical production, filmed live from the San Francisco Opera, features state-of-the-art technology (lighting, projections, etc.) to seamlessly move the opera's scenes deftly and, not infrequently, adding a little "awe" power for the audience. But the show is not about effects, but rather about epic storytelling through music and the effects and stage designs are simply the very elaborate platform for an overwhelming operatic treatment of one of our great, classic tales.

Heggie's score has moments that recall Britten (strongly) as well as other composers, yet, having heard most of his music to date, stands on its own offering a stamp of recognizable individuality. There were snippets and melodies of things that I "thought" I knew, but were (much like Humperdinck with his Hansel und Gretel) wholly original - yet undeniably familiar. That's a nice gift.

The individual performances are, to a one, exemplary and the commitment each singer brings to his or her role is commendable and clear. Jay Hunter Morris stepped into some big shoes (Ben Heppner was the celebrated, original Ahab) and does so admirably. With a brighter, more pointed sound and less sweetness of tone than Heppner, Morris presents a different Ahab, no less formidable and his madness is, at times, appropriately unnerving, though this seems to come more from seeing than hearing him.

Each of Ahab's crew members are immediately likable, each earning our sympathies, none, so much (for this viewer) as Stephen Costello's Greenhorn. Costello's attractive, tightly wound vibrato imbues Greenhorn with the innocent melancholy of an orphan . . . an outsider, his growing attachment to the "savage" Queequeg, and the friendship that ensues between this pair of loners is infinitely touching.
Greenhorn's "realization" aria following the rescue of Pip elevates this simple soul into another realm. His duet with Queequeg which opens Act 2, is one of the opera's emotional and musical highlights. As Queequeg, Jonathan Lemalus is non plus ultra and will surely be a tough act to follow for future singers of the role. Possessed of a Samoan/Polynesian island physicality, and elaborately tattooed from the face down, Lemalu's savage is truly noble, in many ways, the most thoughtful and honest of the Pequod's shipmates.

Talise Trevigne's clear, high flying soprano and impish size make her perfect as Pip the cabin boy (and she gets to fly) Morgan Smith's Starbuck is, likewise, just about perfect, his great aria closing Act 1 revealing his torturous moral dilemma of how to save his shipmates from Ahab the Mad. The "home" duet for Starbuck and Ahab is a grand one pulling each man in several directions, before driving the opera to its mighty conclusion. Heggie pulls out all the stops here, the music swaying between the sentimentality and the madness of Ahab's pursuit of the Great White.

Patrick Summers leads the San Francisco forces with assurance, driving the music furiously through its dramatic, stormy scenes while allowing his singers plenty of room for lyrical expansion - which Heggie, thankfully offers the men and boys of the Pequod, aplenty.

The DVD/BluRay set finds the opera - a bit more than was captured for PBS (including a curtain call, albeit abbreviated and rushed clumsily), onto a single disc, with a second, hour long DVD featuring interviews with the cast, Messrs Heggie, Summers and Scheer. It also has a breathtaking (literally), fascinating time-lapse video condensing a roughly 24 hour period of the War Memorial Stage as it transforms from Lohengrin, to Moby Dick, Lohengrin again, then Tosca.

I was happy to learn that after 5 or 6 productions so far, "Moby Dick" will be playing at even more companies in the upcoming years - a promising sign.

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