Friday, October 19, 2012

San Francisco Opera: Heggie's Moby Dick

October 13, 2012

Having sailed its way through Dallas, San Diego, Calgary and Australia, Moby-Dick made port in San Francisco, providing powerful evidence that Jake Heggie, with his dedication to singer and story, is the best opera composer going. Heggie also has a view of musical history as not something to be avoided (as so many composers in the late 20th century seemed to do) but as a toolbox to be applied in relating a story to an audience.

A great example is the use of tonal cycling in Moby-Dick. Opera minimalists use the device as an hours-long drone. Heggie takes advantage of its propulsive, rolling sounds to evoke the ocean and drive the tension, and then moves on to something else. He also writes (gasp!) set pieces containing (gasp!) actual, lyrical melody. Some of these pieces even contained the kind of melodic arches native to Puccini’s arias.

The opera opens with a stunning projection of stars turning into constellations turning into a sailing ship, followed by a small opening scene and then a grand chorus of brass and sailors as they work an impressive collection of masts and riggings. The proceedings are interrupted by Ahab’s stentorian shout of “Infinity!” (Could an icon have a better entrance?) From there, Gene Scheer’s libretto moves quickly from one conflict to the next, most of them concerning Ahab’s white-whale obsession and Starbuck’s belief that this obsession will lead the Pequod’s crew into danger. The architecture and pace of the libretto is beautiful, and makes much use of the language in Melville’s novel.

The first whaling scene takes that conflict and makes it physical. Robert Brill’s ingenious set curves steeply at the back, allowing the sailors to ride boat-shaped projections (designed by Elaine J. McCarthy) as if they were navigating the face of a wave. (Those tossed overboard slide down the curve into the drink.) The cast performs with great athleticism, both in this scene and in a wild fight in Act II (stage director Leonard Foglia, fight director Jonathan Rider). The sole female, soprano Talise Trevigne one-ups them all by singing aloft, a bracing facsimile of the cabin boy Pip’s journey beneath the water’s surface.

Vocally, the cast is high on testosterone and force – most of all Jay Hunter Morris, who endows Ahab with a heldentenor presence (he sang Siegfried in SFO’s 2011 Ring Cycle), and also delivers Ahab’s unexpected moments of intellect and poetry. Heggie provides him with a masterful manifesto, “I leave a white and turbid wake.”

Baritone Morgan Smith gives Ahab a reasoned, capable opponent in Starbuck, whose many reflections on his home and family in Nantucket carry folk touches reminiscent of Carlisle Floyd. His soliloquy, “He would have shot me,” goes the other direction, carrying the kind of morbid tension exhibited in Heggie’s confession scene from Dead Man Walking, as Starbuck considers murdering Ahab in his sleep.

Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu possesses both the heritage and the presence for Queequeg, adding an exotic element to the story and music (if he had a leitmotif, it would be percussion). Lemalu brings out a noble gentleness amid the storms of the Pequod crew, especially in the friendship duet with the Greenhorn, sung as they dangle from the riggings.

Tenor Stephen Costello performs superbly as the Greenhorn, who serves as the “innocent eyes” of the narrative, and also, in Scheer’s deft conflation, in place of the narrator Ishmael. (The placement of the novel’s first line is itself a piece of goose-bump genius.) Baritone Robert Orth provides comic relief with the second mate Stubb, in the chanty-like “Spanish Ladies.” An additional old-fashioned melody appears in “Lost in the heart of the sea,” sung by the chorus as they search for Pip. The chorus’s unison cry of “We are one” is a riveting, Verdian device, driven by snare drum and brass.

Ahab’s final cataclysm is delivered by striking projections of water, constellations, the Pequod and the eye of the whale. The sum is certainly effective, but not a match for what I imagined. Sadly, what I imagined is probably not possible on an opera stage.

Patrick Summers led his orchestra through Heggie’s score with great gusto. I especially enjoyed the xylophone, which lent a sharp edge to the dicier moments. The second act begins to drag toward the end, but the slowdown makes a good prelude to the sudden sighting of the white whale. Ahab’s call of “There she blows” is answered by heart-stopping explosions from the orchestra.

Images: Jay Hunter Morris (Captain Ahab). Talise Trevigne (Pip). The whaleboats. The deck of the Pequod. Stephen Costello (Greenhorn) and Jonathan Lemalu (Queegueg). Photos by Cory Weaver.

Through Nov. 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $22-$340,, 415/864-3330

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel Operaville, available at

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