San Jose Opera’s revival of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s 2010 “Moby Dick” is a winning epic. (Courtesy Pat Kirk)

San Jose Opera’s ‘Moby Dick’ a whale of a show

When “Moby-Dick” made its world premiere at Dallas Opera in 2010, followed by its acclaimed West Coast premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2012, Jake Heggie’s opera was quickly recognized as one of the finest new music works of the 21st century.

Adapting Herman Melville’s leviathan novel, composer Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer created an aptly large-scale drama, one that has gone on to be produced by opera companies around the world.

In Opera San José’s splendid new production, it’s easy to see why. Sunday’s performance in the California Theatre, beautifully staged and vibrantly performed by an impressive ensemble cast conducted by music director Joseph Marcheso, offered a thrilling reminder of the work’s theatrical power and beauty.

Heggie’s score yields a richly enveloping atmosphere, with character-defining arias, tender interludes, and big, soaring ensembles. Scheer’s libretto manages to capture both the intensity and perils of life aboard the whaling ship Pequod while exploring the relationships of the men who sail the seas under the command of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab.

This revival presents the story in magnificently imagined detail.

Director Kristine McIntyre and set designer Erhard Rom have given the opera a flexible, large-scale set that moves into various configurations to suggest both the Pequod’s massive deck and the smaller boats used by the men to enter the roiling waters surrounding it. Maps of the world wrap around the stage, with rear projections and atmospheric lighting (Pamila Z. Gray) summoning the vastness of the sea.

The large ensemble cast inhabits the opera with strong performances. Richard Cox’s large, grainy tenor projects the pitiless intensity in Ahab’s singular quest to capture the white whale. Tenor Noah Stewart is a graceful, eloquent Greenhorn, and bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam gives a magnetic performance as the harpooner Queequeg; their Act I duet was one of the production’s high points.

As the first mate Starbuck, baritone Justin Ryan expressed the sailors’ fears and longing for home and family with touching clarity, and baritone Trevor Neal sang with warmth as Gardiner. Soprano Jasmine Habersham – the only female in the otherwise all-male cast – made incisive contributions as the cabin boy Pip. Christopher James Ray’s chorus sounded tremendous.

With its well-defined strains of intimate lyricism and almost Wagnerian grandeur, “Moby-Dick” requires a conductor well-tuned to the opera’s shifts in mood. Marcheso, leading an alert orchestra, guided the performance through its most turbulent waters.

REVIEW

Moby Dick
Presented by Opera San Jose
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 22, 3 p.m. Feb. 24
Tickets: $10 to $185
Contact: (408) 437-4450, www.operasj.org

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