Review: A Majestic West Coast Premiere for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2012

San Diego Opera became the fourth of the five companies that sponsored the world premiere production of Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick” to present it to their home town audiences. The opera’s actual world premiere took place in April, 2010 at the Dallas Opera. During the two intervening years the production traveled to Adelaide, Australia (August 2011) for its Southern Hemisphere premiere, then North to Calgary at the end of January 2012 for its Canadian premiere. The opera will have its San Francisco premiere in October 2012.

I was present at the world premiere night, celebrating Dallas’ new Winspear Opera House, in which the new opera created an intensely favorable first impression (see my review at World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010).

It was with special interest that I returned to this production, with virtually all of the production’s creative team intact, excepting one of the original cast principals (Stephen Costello, who was the first Greenhorn, and who will make his San Francisco Opera debut in this role.)

[Below: the crew of the Pequod assembles on deck; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The chronicling of first impressions of new works is an important process for students of the history of the operatic repertory, and those able to experience a new work more than once, be it repeat performances in the same city, or the same production with a relatively intact cast in more than one city, will have deeper insights into a new opera’s strengths.

In fact, repeated hearings assure me that my original impression of highly accessible, melodic music, with deep and luscious orchestration is well-founded. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the producers of some new franchise series of movies as ambitious as “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” with their famous orchestral scores would reveal that they envy the infectious musical themes that Heggie has lavished on “Moby Dick”.

Nor is the razzle-dazzle of the dizzying projections that propel us through the Seven Seas, submerge us in the ocean depths, and demolish whale boats and destroy the Pequod before our very eyes, any less amazing in repeated viewings. (The static pictures shown in this review cannot begin to give the reader a sense of what the experience of this opera is like.)

[Below: Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, front right) and the whale boats of the Pequod; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Ultimately it is the enduring impressions that emerge from multiple performances, especially with the opportunities to fine-tune the staging when presented in different opera houses and variations in the casts.

After the Dallas premiere, I made a couple of predictions. First, this will become the pacesetter for popularity of operas written in the 21st century. Second, that in time we will regard it as a transitional work towards even greater American operas, with Heggie recognized as the composer leading the way.

The Musical Performance

With multiple performances in Texas, Australia and Canada preceding the opera’s California premiere in San Diego, familiarity is increasing with Heggie’s sumptuous score and librettist Gene Scheer’s distillation of Melville’s expansive ideas into a linear story arc.

One of the extraordinary ideas in constructing the opera, for which composer Heggie credits Terrence McNally (his librettist for “Dead Man Walking”) was that the role of Captain Ahab would be written for the kind of dramatic voice capable of singing Wagner’s heldentenor roles.

Two such heldentenors have shared the role to date – the role’s original creator Ben Heppner, who sang the Dallas and Calgary performances and Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the role in Adelaide and was originally cast to sing it in the San Diego run of performances. (Both are scheduled to split the performances in San Francisco in the fall.)

The complexity of casting healthy heldentenors impacted the San Diego run, when the Metropolitan Opera in New York needed to find a Siegfried for its performances of Wagner’s “Goetterdaemmerung”. To accommodate the Met, the San Diego Opera released Hunter to the Met and secured Heppner  for its performances. Heppner credibly delivered his characterization of the gruff, crusty old salt, whose fatal obsession with the whale the “dismasted” him, results in the death of virtually every man who sailed with him.

But one could detect that Heppner’s voice was under pressure for much of the evening and late the next day the San Diego Opera announced that  Heppner was suffering from illness and would be replaced by Morris for the Tuesday evening performance that followed.

[Below: Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, front center) stands on deck, while Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu, top center on master) and the Greenhorn (Jonathan Boyd, below Queequeg on mast); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Heppner was not the only member of the creative team to succumb to illness. The originally announced conductor for San Diego, Karen Keltner, withdrew a few days before the performance to be replaced by Joseph Mechavich, who conducted the performances in Calgary earlier in the month. (Patrick Summers conducted the world premiere performances in Dallas.)

But Heppner, even if on the verge of illness, was a formidable presence as Ahab and Mechavich an impressive conductor. The remaining cast was invariably top rate.

Lemalu, a New Zealander of Samoan heritage, had no trouble projecting the image of a Prince of the South Seas kingdom of Kokovoko. Boyd was a credible Greenhorn (Ishmael), the only survivor of the wreck of the Pequod, whom one can imagine renouncing all interest in Yankee whaling and spending the rest of his life in pagan comfort on the island that had been the home of his departed friend, Queequeg.

[Below: the harpooner Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu, top center) teaches the Greenhorn (Jonathan Boyd, below left) the lore of the sea; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Morgan Smith, who gave memorable performances in both the Dallas and San Diego mountings of the opera, plays the First Mate, Starbuck. With an authoritative deep baritone, his character is one who elicits the audience’s sympathy, even as he wrestles with the dilemma of whether – in an act that would certainly be considered murder and mutiny – he should take the opportunity to murder Ahab.

[Below: Starbuck (Morgan Smith, left) comes across a vulnerable Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, sleeping on map table); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Heggie and librettist Scheer, for whom the words that are to be sung are critically important, have invested beautifully written text and music for Starbuck’s wrestling with his conscience, what might be considered the raison d’etre of choosing this subject for an opera.

Ahab is willful and holds an autocratic position that controls the very lives of the persons on board his ship. Ahab’s desire is to push on to find the White Whale, irrespective of the economic mission of the voyage, even if it disspirits the men whose livelihood depends on the amount of sperm oil they collect and return to port. Ahab cannot be dissuaded from his purpose even by the plea of Captain Gardiner of another whaler (nicely sung by Malcolm MacKenzie) for Ahab to loan him the Pequod for a couple of day’s search for a son who was lost overboard.

[Below: The Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck (Morgan Smith), below the vats that render whale blubber into whale oil, wrestles with his conscience; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Starbuck is surely right that Ahab is ignoring the revenue-maximizing purpose of the voyage, but, without the information, not part of anyone’s calculations, that the entire ship and almost all of its crew will perish, can one justify mutiny, and especially murder? These are the kinds of moral dilemmas that Melville inspired another opera composer to address – Benjamin Britten in “Billy Budd”.

Yet Smith’s Starbuck finds himself empathetic to Ahab, when the two of them sing together of the homes and children that they with regret leave behind. He is disarmed by Ahab’s hint of humanity. The unanimity of the crew in pursuing Moby Dick, when finally sighted by Ahab, leads to the abandonment of all caution and the destruction of the Pequod’s world.

It’s not only the moral dilemmas of Captain Vere in Britten’s “Billy Budd” and Starbuck in Heggie’s “Moby Dick” and the source materials in Melville’s writings that suggest important parallels between the new 21st century seaboard saga and the mid-20th century masterpiece.  Heggie’s use of choral writing deserves to be considered in a class with Britten’s. The San Diego Chorus, under the direction of Charles F. Prestinari, performed with world class flair.

Lots of touches suggest that the whaling crews of the Pequod and the sailors of the British man-o-war Indomitable would find much in common, from tongue-twisting sea shanties to the all-male dancing below decks.

Many elements of Heggie’s work suggest that “Moby Dick” will be enduring, while so many contemporary works will not be. (Almost every opera that has ever been written in history can be considered a failure if endurance past the initial audiences is considered the main criterion.)

The vivid characterizations of the first, second and third mates, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, and the connection between Queequeg and the Greenhorn, are superbly drawn. Talise Trevigne was affecting in the physically and vocally demanding role of Pip the Cabin boy.

[Below: First mate Starbuck (Morgan Smith, on deck, front left), Second Mate Stubb (Robert Orth, on deck, front, second from left) and Third Mate Flask (Matthew O’Neill, front, center right) gather on deck as Pip (Talise Trevigne, on mast, center, in red het) looks from above; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The bountiful melodies and the intelligently written libretto will make this a revivable opera that will be worthy of new productions by different creative teams, as more audiences and creative teams come to know and appreciate the opera.

However, there is a special relationship between an opera and its original creative team (or in the case of the five co-producing opera companies, teams). Leonard Foglia, the original director, supervised its San Diego staging.

Robert Brill, who has designed sets for both San Diego Opera (see Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007) and English National Opera (see Toby Spence Stars in Des McAnuff’s Rousing ENO Production of Gounod’s “Faust” – London, October 14, 2010) reviewed on this site, created the physical sets, which meshed brilliantly with the exciting, state-of-the-art projections by Elaine J. McCarthy.

Jane Greenwood was Costume Designer and Donald Holder was Lighting Designer. James Newcomb, the Fight Director, blocked out an on-deck melee. Fletcher Runyon was the Acrobatic Coordinator.