Moby-Dick, San Diego

Its libretto is taut and clear,
its music accessible and appealing, and its visual effects spectacular and
breathtaking. If you can get to see this production, do not miss it.

Moby-Dick, first performed by the Dallas Opera company in 2010, was
jointly commissioned by Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego and Calgary Operas and
the State Opera of South Australia. Calgary and South Australia have already
seen it. The San Diego production marks its West Coast premier. San Francisco
will see it this fall.

Melville was an author obsessed with telling what he considered the whole
truth about everything. “Taking a book off the brain is akin to the
ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel —
you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due
safety,” he wrote while at work on Moby-Dick. Its main
characters’ histories and emotional stories, its metaphorical, symbolic
meanings were buried deep in over seven hundred pages of side tales and
expository material. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer miraculously reduced
this leviathan work to two dramatic acts. Working with director and dramaturg
Leonard Foglia and a visual production team, they shaped the material into an
opera in which words, music and extraordinary visual effects flow together

The ingenious sets and projections begin during the overture and take us
from the starry heaven to the deck of the Pequod just as the curtain rises. As
the story rolls on we see the crew climbing the rigging, the ship jibing, a boy
flailing in hostile seas, harpooners leaping in and falling out of small boats.
Amazingly there is singing going on all the time.

Sheer’s libretto effectively captures the essence of human longings and love
through poetic language and occasional patterns of rhyme. He centered the plot
in two struggles as seen through two sets of relationships. The core of
Moby-Dick is the moral and ethical struggle between the mad Captain
Ahab ruthlessly pursing the white whale, and Starbuck, his principled first
mate, who tries vainly to become the unhearing Ahab’s voice of conscience. We
learn the yearning of the fearful young seaman called Greenhorn, who knows
little of life and less about sailing, through his interaction with Queequeg,
the self-contained aborigine harpooner, who befriends him. Then there is the
cabin boy, Pip, loved by all, who sings, dances, plays his tambourine, and goes
mad. The large crew provides an impressive male chorus.

Conductor Joseph Mechavich, replacing San Diego’s principal conductor,
Karen Keltner, who became ill just before rehearsals were to begin, led an
assured performance. Mechavich had conducted the work in Calgary. Tenor Jay
Hunter Morris who had sung Captain Ahab in Australia was literally dropped into
costume overnight after a run of Siegfrieds at the Met, when Ben Heppner left
after the first performance. Stomping around on his peg leg, Morris handled the
role’s high tessitura effortlessly. His second act duet with the excellent
Morgan Smith, a veteran Starbuck, new to San Diego, was memorable. Jonathan
Boyd, new to both San Diego and the role, was a sweet voiced Greenhorn,
perfectly paired with the Queegueg of bass Jonathan Lemalu, another Moby
veteran, debuting in San Diego. The duet in which the two, high in
the rigging, dream of a peaceful future on Queegueg’s island, is almost a love
song. Soprano Talise Trevigne’s rich soprano, coupled with her agility and
charm made one feel for the unfortunate Pip.

Jake Heggie is a composer known for his songs as well as operas. He not only
writes movingly for the voice, but commands a rich and colorful orchestral
palette, and has an enormous lyric gift. Extraordinarily for a newly heard
work, a friend and I left the opera house singing snatches of its oft repeating
orchestral themes. Is this good or bad? Will this score with its movie-music
edge and oft repeated theme, survive? I have no doubt that the opera’s prelude
and sea music will someday become a Moby-Dick suite, much like Sea
taken from Britten’s Peter Grimes. There is much
in this work both literally and musically of Britten’s Billy
(also based on a Melville novel). Musical references to Puccini,
Bernstein, even Copland and Philip Glass have all been noted in Heggie’s score.
But it is Heggie’s score alone that will determine the place of Moby
in the operatic repertoire.

I’d like to think that Moby-Dick will long be a part of the American
operatic scene. But I worry how it will fare if and when less expensive
productions cannot do justice to the visual aspects of the production. Will the
music and story hold up?

The first act of the opera is spell binding as the visuals and story lines
unfold before us. The second act, while visually brilliant, and offering two
lyrical duets, is somewhat static, as we await the predictable conclusion. The
Pequod is destroyed, the crew is lost at sea. We are astounded by the speed and
brilliance of the scene, by the powerful rhythms and clashing dissonances of
the sea, but we are not deeply moved. We have witnessed a huge tragedy, good
people have died, but there is no single character aboard the Pequod whose fate
moves us to tears; no Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, nor even the murderous barge
captain, Michele in Il Tabarro.

Make no mistake, this was a thrilling evening of opera, greeted
enthusiastically by a grateful audience. I left the theater feeling that
American composers, writers and visual artists will keep opera alive throughout
this still new century. .

Kudos to the San Diego opera company for having brought this work to its
stage. Though not privy to the company’s internal workings, I know that
aside from raising $2,398,956 required for artists, crews, sets, and everything
else, its General and Artistic Director Ian Campbell and staff had to replace
his conductor once and his star tenor, twice. So I’m grateful that Mr.
Campbell too seems to have been a bit obsessed with finding Moby-Dick.

Estelle Gilson

image_description=Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab [Photo by Photografeo courtesy of San Diego Opera]
product_title=Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick
product_by=Queegueg:Jonathan Lemalu; Greenhorn:Johnathan Boyd; Starbuck:Morgan Smith; Pip:Talise Ttrevigne; Captain Ahab:Jay Hunter Morris; Conductor: Joseph Mechavich; Director and Dramaturg:Leonard Foglia; Librettist:Gene Scheer; Scenic Designer:Robert Brill; Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Designer:Donald Holder; Projection Designer:Elaine J. McCarthy.
product_id=Above: Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab [Photo by Photografeo courtesy of San Diego Opera]