Review: Another Opera House Conquered – Ovations for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at San Francisco Opera, October 10, 2012

I suspect that readers of this website will not be surprised by a positive review from me of San Francisco Opera’s premiere of a production of Heggie’s now two-year old opera “Moby Dick”.

In my comments on the production debuts in Dallas and San Diego  [see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010 and  A Majestic West Coast Premiere for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2012] I predicted that, if the future doesn’t recognize the opera work itself as the Great American Opera, it will be ranked as the precursor to whatever work achieves that distinction.

[Below: Composer Jake Heggie; resized image of a promotional photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I reiterate my strong belief that American opera, led by Heggie and a few of his talented contemporaries, is on the verge of producing works that will secure places in the active performance repertory, and will hold those places because opera audiences demand that the works be included in their opera season subscriptions.

My two reviews cited above include extensive comments about the opera, the production, including the impressive projections that give us a vivid sense of being at sea. It also includes selections from Karen Almond’s photographs in Dallas and Ken Howard’s in San Diego, which, together with those from Cory Weaver in San Francisco, hints at what the opera-goer may experience.

The order of cities in which the production has been seen so far is accurate in the San Diego Opera, rather than the Dallas, review, but otherwise there is no part of either review that I would change. I have commented on the previous performances of all members of the San Francisco cast, excepting Jay Hunter Morris’ Ahab, which is discussed below. (I am scheduled also to review the performance of October 21st, so the following comments will not be my last, even for this month.)

How to Create an Operatic Masterpiece

An artistic masterpiece is always a multi-faceted creation that constantly reveals more about itself as one studies it more. In performance art – surely, opera is the ultimate performance art – that process of revelation is experiential. Each time you see the work, you learn and understand more about  it.

[Below: Captain Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris, in front of the center mast) stands on the deck of the Pequod; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Librettist Gene Scheer, working with the Melville Foundation, extracted from Herman Melville’s classic literary work just a few of its themes. Yet each theme is superbly developed in the opera. (Different students of the work, possibly including the composer and librettist, might not even agree that my statement of the opera’s themes is exactly what they intended, but different viewpoints on an opera’s meaning is the special nature of a multifacteted masterpiece.)

The first theme is the moral question confronting Ahab’s first mate Starbuck. As a ship’s officer he knows that Captain Ahab has full command of the Pequod  and it is the Captain that sets the course. Although he is certain that Ahab’s actions may lead to the destruction of the ship and all its crew, and killing the Captain might save everyone’s lives and fortune, to do so would be an act of murder and mutiny. When do you substitute your judgment for the rule of law, especially the Law of the always dangerous Sea?

[Below: Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The second theme is intertwined with the first and is also a question raised by Starbuck. What is the purpose of revenge against a “dumb animal” –  the white whale – that is simply following its instincts.

The third theme is that of Ishmael the Greenhorn, the only person to survive the Pequod’s destruction. His is a disillusionment with 19th century Western Civilization, or at least that of the whaling towns of New England. He is drawn to the idea of Kokovoko, the island in which his new friend and soulmate Queequeg – the only person important to his life – is a royal, though pagan, prince.

[Below: Morgan Smith as First Mate Starbuck; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Each of these ideas deserves extended comments, but need not be detailed here. There will be much more to say about the opera’s meanings in future essays on this website. Most persons in the San Francisco audiences are seeing the opera for the first time, and that first-time experience is to be savored.

Jay Hunter Morris’ Ahab

Although the role of Ahab was originally written for Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner, who sang both the world premiere performances and the first performance in San Diego, Jay Hunter Morris has become the most frequent interpreter of the role, including replacing Heppner for the entire San Francisco run.

Morris’ Ahab has emerged as a powerful portrayal, a bit more lyrical and more sympathetic than Heppner’s gruff sea captain. Morris suggests a more nuanced madman.

Heggie’s sweetest melody, first heard early in the opera’s prelude, accompanies Ahab’s musings. (As if to balance the tense relationship between the Captain and his first mate Starbuck, the latter has a beautiful melody of his own.)

[Below: Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu, left) and Greenhorn (Stephen Costello, right), sharing a room at the Spouter’s Inn, bond together as best friends; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The performance was the San Francisco Opera debut of the excellent lyric tenor Stephen Costello, a specialist in the melodic operas of Donizetti and Gounod, whose insights into the character of the Greenhorn and his yearning for the idyllic image of Kokovoko I have discussed at some length with him. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.]

My recommendation

Obviously, I recommend the San Francisco performances unreservedly, even to those opera goers who are usually skeptical of contemporary opera. “Moby Dick” is a game-changer – for 21st century opera in general and American opera especially.