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'Moby-Dick' the opera brought to home port

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Stellar singing: From left
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San Francisco composer Jake Heggie's 2010 “Moby-Dick” arrived in the War Memorial Opera House Wednesday in a San Francisco Opera production after scoring well in Dallas and elsewhere.

Suffused with gorgeous harmonies and melodic music, there are few contemporary operas like it; it certainly will stay in the international repertory for a long time.

Heggie's work – with Gene Scheer's libretto based on Herman Melville's universally-known, rarely read book – is his biggest and best.

Its romantic music is charming, perhaps too much. Captain Ahab's struggle with the “damn whale,” his obsession, and the relentless drama leading to the destruction of the Pequod and its crew call for less lyricism and more punch. It's a superb soundtrack, but more fitting for some other movie.

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What almost makes up for the lack of unambiguous tragedy is a great physical production (Leonard Foglia's direction, Robert Brill's sets, Elaine J. McCarthy's projections), Patrick Summers' masterful direction of an orchestra on fire (grand work by woodwinds), and a dynamite cast.

Without such excellent execution, the work's dramatic weakness would be more obvious.

The first act flows well, and the second stalls at times, as arias and duets create resting points in the forward motion. But the finale – Greenhorn's survival and transformation into Ishmael – is close to perfection.

Much of the opera is a duet between Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab and Morgan Smith as Starbuck. Both are superb.
Morris, the new leading heldentenor in San Francisco and Metropolitan Opera Wagner roles, handles the high-tessitura effortlessly. Smith – heard here before in a minor part in “Madama Butterfly” – is vocally and dramatically striking.

In two welcome local debuts, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg and Stephen Costello as Greenhorn are memorable; their characters’ bonding is believable.

Talise Trevigne, also in a local debut, rules the stage as Pip the cabin boy, who flies, Peter Pan-like, in a dramatic near-drowning scene. Adler Fellow Joo Won Kang, commander of the Rachel, booms mightily from offstage.

With no weak links among the soloists, chorus and orchestra, San Francisco Opera’s “Moby-Dick”  is a production to treasure, even more than the work itself.

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