San Francisco Opera was a co-commissioner of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's Moby-Dick, an adaptation of Herman Melville's towering saga, and two years after its Dallas premiere, the opera arrived a couple of weeks ago at the War Memorial Opera House. The production and cast, with one exception, were those of the premiere.
The exception, of course, was that sometime during the rehearsal period, Ben Heppner, who created Ahab, dropped out for personal reasons, with Jay Hunter Morris taking all of the performances rather than the two he'd originally been scheduled for. You can bet I've spent some time pondering whether "personal reasons" means a family member having surgery, or that Heppner wasn't sounding good enough, or that he wasn't looking good enough - not that I think Ahab has any particular look, but Heppner is a big guy and this production is being recorded for eventual TV broadcast.
In any event, I think you could say that Moby-Dick both exceeded and met my expectations. Heggie has grown enormously as a composer since Dead Man Walking. I found the latter almost completely forgettable, with the exception of Susan Graham's radiant singing of a spiritual and Frederica von Stade's brilliant and anguished scene as the mother of the condemned man.
By contrast, Moby-Dick is a feast for the ears, one beautiful orchestral moment succeeding another, mixing arias, duets, and ensembles deftly, and flowing beautifully along. The orchestration is layered on richly, and there's no sense that he's marking time with infinite ostinato, which was a big problem with Dead Man Walking. I was happy with Patrick Summers's conducting, though I think the piece could have moved along more urgently a few times.
The staging is spectacular, matching the music: the deck of the Pequod and below decks are shown using a couple of different stage levels; projections show some of the ship's movements, and, well, it's all quite lovely. There's just one failure, and it's big and obvious: if you didn't know the story going in, you could never guess that Moby-Dick stoves in and sinks the Pequod. This is fixable, and it's rather surprising that it hasn't been fixed yet.
The cast is just about flawless in their execution. Jonathan Lemalu, whom I disliked in El Nino a couple of years ago, is exactly right as Queequeg, his gravely, hefty baritone well suited for the part. (If anyone is thinking of changing him out, try Quinn Kelsey; he is also an islander, from Hawaii, and has a much more beautiful voice.) Stephen Costello, as Greenhorn, sings sweetly and affectingly; Talise Trevigne makes a convincing young Pip and has one of the best solos in the piece, which she sings high above the stage on a wire after Pip goes overboard and nearly drowns. Morgan Smith is a sonorous Starbuck, joining Brian Mulligan and Kelsey among the talented young baritones we've been seeing lately in SF. Robert Orth and Matthew O'Neill are excellent as Stubb and Flask.
And then there's Jay Hunter Morris, limping around on a pegleg (and consequently rather limited in the scenery-chewing department), glaring a lot, singing well, and unfortunately not coming across very strongly as the crazed and demonic Ahab.
A friend who saw the primo in Dallas tells me that Heppner was a good deal more effective, and I can believe that: I've seen Heppner's Tristan, and boy howdy was his Act III searing. But I think the major problem is the music itself and the organization of the libretto.
Now, I think the libretto is pretty damned impressive. Scheer took an enormous novel and devised a libretto that does a good job of portraying both life at sea and the intricate relationships among the characters. But it's a compact libretto and opera and what's missing is Ahab's insanity and his obsessive and fanatical desire to Get That Whale. I seriously wonder whether they were deliberately trying to bring the opera in at no more than three hours and whether that limited what they put on stage.
More to the point, the music is so beautiful that it simply fails to portray Ahab's obsessions with any power. If you closed your eyes, you'd hear a lot of beautiful music and have little idea of how nuts he is. Putting it another way, Heggie taps into Rosenkavalier when he needed to mine the Elektra vein. Now there's someone obsessed, and there's a musical language that can portray rage and insanity and hatred. Stop trying to be so accessible, Jake, and let the craziness rip.