Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick has been successful in a way few contemporary operas are. Since its Dallas premiere in 2010 it has been given in Adelaide, Calgary, San Diego and, most recently, San Francisco where it was recorded in 2012. It’s not hard to see why it has been a success. The subject is dramatic and has been skilfully compressed into a little over two hours by librettist Gene Scheer and the score steers the fine line between accessibility and triviality. Add to that a visually appealing production and it’s a winning package.
There’s nothing really surprising in the music and little to offend. Fans of Reimann or Birtwistle may find it a little unchallenging but there’s a lot to like. At its core is a driving energy, likely created by the frequent changes of time signature, and a basically tonal structure that can veer off in enough unexpected directions to maintain interest. There are elements of minimalism too (more Adams than Glass). There are also some real melodies, mostly reserved for the big arias. yes it has those. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the music is that it’s quite singer friendly. It makes the singers sound good and probably doesn’t overtax the voice either. I think that’s a big part of the appeal. So many contemporary operas have great orchestral music but seem to want to torture the vocalists or, perhaps even worse, give them ditch dull music to sing.
It’s hard to write about the production based on the video recording. There’s a lot of use of projections and the way the piece is filmed makes it very difficult to tell what the theatre audience saw. I think a lot of the action goes on with the characters placed on a heavily raked stage while projections (by Elaine McCarthy) play around them suggesting things like whale boats in action or a storm at sea but it’s hard to be sure. When we aren’t looking at projections the action mostly takes place on a unit set (by Robert Brill) with a couple of masts and some symbolic rigging. It’s an effective enough platform for Leonard Foglia’s rather deft handling of the more psychological aspects of the drama.
By the time this production got to San Francisco most of the cast had played their roles at least once before and had time to work out the details and so it’s not surprising that there are some stand out performances. Jay Hunter Morris plays the central and crucial role of Captain Ahab. It’s a big sing, especially in the second act, but Morris is up for it and manages to convey the obsessive nature of the man without becoming a caricature mad man. Indeed, at times, Ahab seems more romantic dreamer than nutcase; almost like a bourgeois Peter Grimes. Morgan Smith is also excellent as the “conscience” of the Pequod, Starbuck. It’s a dignified and nuanced performance. Stephen Costello, as Greenhorn, probably gets the best music to sing. There are some lovely lyrical moments and Costello’s clear tenor is well up for them. He does a good job of conveying the character’s spiritual and psychological transformation too. There’s also a notable contribution from Jonathan Lemalu as the Polynesian harpooneer Queequeg. Keeping us out of Billy Budd territory is Talise Trevigne in the pants role of the cabin boy Pip. She’s improbably pretty for a cabin boy on a whaler and were it not an opera one would fear for her virtue. Conductor Patrick Summers has a long standing working relationship with Heggie so one assumes he knows what he’s doing with the score. Certainly it sounds convincing both in its more lyrical and more frenetic passages.
Frank Zamacona directed for video. As I have already said it’s hard to judge whether the film really represents the stage setting or not. That said, it’s really difficult to film video intensive productions and this effort is, at the very least, not hard to watch. Having recently seen a couple of William Kentridge productions butchered on video I’m not underestimating the skill it takes to do that. On Blu-ray the DTS-HD surround sound and picture are both of very high quality. There are about 45 minutes of interviews with cast members, heggie, Scheer etc which are well worth watching. The booklet contains a track listing, a synopsis and a useful essay by Heggie. Subtitle options are English, French and German.