By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
San Diego Opera: Moby-Dick
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 • San Diego Civic Theatre
Next performances: Friday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Dazzling projections are part of the production of the opera Moby-Dick, now playing at San Diego Opera. Photo by Karen Almond (Dallas Opera).
Moby-Dick — a stunning new opera by composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer and director and dramaturg Leonard Foglia — has dropped anchor in San Diego this week (last night I saw the second of four performances in San Diego’s Civic Theatre). Moby-Dick, the opera, comes with a backstory worthy of novelist Herman Melville (who wrote the original story in 1851). It’s also a vision of what opera may look like from this time forward.
Heggie — who up to this time has been best known for his 2000 opera Dead Man Walking — first considered Melville’s novel as a potential opera in 2005. It was originally written to open Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House in 2010; eventually four other companies signed on as co-commissioners. San Diego Opera is the fourth to present the work; Australia Opera and Calgary Opera followed the Dallas premiere last April; San Francisco Opera gets its turn this fall. Notably absent from the list, of course, is LA Opera.
Playwright Terrence McNally originally collaborated with Heggie on the libretto but dropped out for unspecified reasons. Enter Scheer, who had worked with Heggie on a several projects. Although asked by Heggie to retain some of McNally’s original suggestions, Scheer did an excellent job of streamlining Melville’s novel and providing dialogue that brought all of the major characters to life. Scheer also reordered the story; the book’s famous opening line, “Call Me Ishmael,” is at the end of the opera and Scheer has made Ishmael an older and wiser Greenhorn instead of a separate character.
It’s also worth noting that Heggie and Scheer spent April 2008 in Nantucket, Mass., where the novel is based. They met with author Nathaniel Philbrick, whose novel, The Heart of the Sea, related the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 (the tragedy later inspired Meville’s epic tale).
Foglia — who directed Dead Man Walking for several companies — and his scenic designer, Robert Brill, have created a stunning set for Moby-Dick that, among other things, uses a floor that curves upward sharply at the back (think of a skateboard ramp made of wood). Scrims and moving backdrops helped focus the nine scenes and several characters (most notably, Pip), are required to sing and act while suspended on wires hung from the ceiling.
About the only major problem wasn’t connected with the set. The San Diego Civic Theatre was built long before supertitles came into being and the house elected (for no good reason, that I can discern) to suspend the supertitle monitor below the top of the proscenium. That meant that any time a character ascended one of the ship’s masts (most critically, Ahab), he was invisible to a large segment of those of us in the balcony (and the vocal projections were hampered as well). Every director and stage designer should remember to check the sightlines from the entire house, not just from the orchestra seats.
The most impressive aspects of the scenic design, however, are the projections (originally done by Elaine J. McCarthy and realized in San Diego by Shawn Boyle), which create the heavens, seas, the Pequod, and the whaling boats with effects that would have been worthy of George Lucas. The opening sequence, one of the most imaginative I’ve ever seen and set to the opera’s overture, brought forth a salvo of applause last night from the audience at the San Diego Civic Theatre. The effective original lighting design was by Donald Holder and realized in San Diego by Gavan Swift. Jane Greenwood designed the atmospheric costumes.
Not everyone is in love with Jake Heggie as a composer; among other things, he’s often tarred with that worst of modern epithets, tonal (many similar kvetches were lobbed at Daniel Catán after the premiere of his highly successful opera Il Postino last year at LA Opera). No matter; like Catán, Heggie has created a gripping, dramatic, melodic score that carries the story well for the three-hour production. His arias bring real pathos and depth to the characters and there’s plenty of sweeping music and hummable tunes to make most everyone leave the hall happy.
Just getting this production to the San Diego stage was a triumph of perseverance, good company management, and luck. First, Resident Conductor Karen Keltner had to pull out due to illness. In her place, the company imported Joseph Mechavich, who had conducted the Calgary Opera presentation last fall (a story about the switch is HERE). Mechavich led 85 members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra (which doubles as the opera company’s orchestra) in a committed performance that almost never flagged. Moreover, even with that large an orchestra, the sound rarely overpowered the singers.
The conductor switch was just the beginning. You can read about the multiple machinations for the role of Ahab HERE (read the threads to get the full story) but Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who had created the role in Dallas, struggled with illness in Saturday night’s opening San Diego performance. To the rescue came Jay Hunter Morris, who nine days previously had been singing the role of Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Göotterdämerung but who had created the role of Ahab with Australia Opera last summer. Hunter will finish out the San Diego run.
Despite the facts that no amount of makeup or costumes can make the Morris (who appears much younger than his 48 years) look like a 58-year-old, weather-beaten sea captain and that he had little, if any time, to work with the current cast before last night, Morris cut a compelling figure as Ahab. His gleaming tenor voice is a shade light for a role that really calls for a heldentenor (one could easily imagine Jon Vickers dominating this role), but Morris unraveled Ahab’s complicated, tormented character and sang with exhilarating moments of majesty and pathos. His final duet with Starbuck when he laments on his 40 years at sea and what that has cost him personally, was gripping.
To a degree, Starbuck dominates this opera and Morgan Smith, who created the role in Dallas, made for a hunky Starbuck who sang with a rich, resonant voice. His scene just before intermission when he contemplates killing Ahab was profoundly moving.
Jonathan Lemalu reprised his role as Queequeg, Jonathan Boyd sang the crucial role of Greenhorn with equal amounts of power and grace, and Talise Trevigne, another original Dallas performer, displayed a rich soprano voice and sharply delineated character in the “trousers role” of Pip. She was particularly impressive singing as she hung suspended on a wire.
The other cast members were Matthew O’Neill (Flask), Robert Orth (Stubb), Ernest Pinamonti (Tashtego), Kenneth Anderson (Daggoo), Chad Frisque (Nantucket sailor), James Schindler (Spanish sailor) and Malcolm MacKenzie, as the offstage Captain Gardiner). The crew of the Pequod made a might sound as a chorus and the diction of the entire cast was exemplary; except for ensemble numbers, supertitles were almost never needed.
Similar to Catán’s Il Postino, Heggie’s Moby-Dick is a crowd-pleasing opera but, again like Il Postino, it’s richer and deeper than just that. Moreover, as companies plan future performances of all operas, they’re going to have to think seriously about what Foglia and his team created in terms of this production. It’s going to be hard for many who will see Moby-Dick to be satisfied with your standard painted backdrops again. And Morris, who has cemented his reputation as the best pinch hitter since Manny Mota as playing for the Dodgers, clearly has a role that he may be singing for many years to come.
• Despite the fact that it’s not on the company’s Web site (at least not that I could find), SD Opera does have a rush program with tickets being offered two hours before each program. However ticket sales for the final two performances are reportedly running very strong, so — especially if you’re coming from a long distance — you may want to talk the box office before you make the trip. (619) 533-7000, M-F, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
• Also not on the Web site is that there’s a lecture an hour before each performance. Moreover, the excellent articles by Heggie or Scheer printed in the program aren’t posted online, although there are videos and podcasts available (believe it or not, SD Opera folks, some of us still read).
• The production ran just under three hours last night, including one intermission.
• If you’re traveling from Los Angeles south, you can make the trip on for Sunday’s 2 p.m. performance on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. You can drive it faster, but if you’re traveling alone, the $72 RT fare is far less than the real cost to operate your car for 250 miles RT, plus parking. You will probably arrive in time for a quick bite before the performance; Downtown Johnny Brown’s is a bar and restaurant across the plaza from the Civic Theatre that, among other things, offers free Wifi and serves an excellent bacon cheeseburger (LINK). Unfortunately, you can’t make the train trip Friday night because trains back to L.A. don’t run late enough.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.