Heggie Captures Melville’s Vastness and Intimacy

United StatesUnited States Jake Heggie, Moby-Dick: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 10.10.2012 (HS)


Greenhorn (Ishmael): Stephen Costello
Captain Ahab: Jay Hunter Morris
Starbuck: Morgan Smith
Queequeg: Jonathan Lemalu
Pip: Talise Trevigne
Flask: Matthew O’Neill
Stubb: Robert Orth


Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set Designer: Robert Brill
Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer: Don Holder
Projection Designer: Elaine J. Mccarthy
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Choreographer/Movement Director: Keturah Stickann

Jay Hunter Morris (Captain Ahab) and the Crew of the Pequod. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The Pequod sailed into the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco Wednesday, successfully translating Herman Melville’s sprawling, philosophical, multi-layered and much-revered novel Moby-Dick into an opera by focusing on the interpersonal relationships that drive the collisions of conscience at the heart of the story. In opera, one musical phrase can illuminate aspects of the soul that can take pages in a novel, and composer Jake Heggie’s sound world does that brilliantly. A cast of principals that have sung this work before bring it all to life in this production, its fifth time around.

Heard opening night, the cast’s familiarity and comfort were striking. In scene after scene, they brought out nuances of Heggie’s melodic lines and librettist Gene Scheer’s carefully chosen text. Conductor Patrick Summers, who led the premiere two-and-a-half years ago, brought a seamlessness and shapeliness to Heggie’s descriptive score, and the production crew, which did the previous stagings as well, brought with them theatrical flair. Director Leonard Foglia and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

The work debuted in 2010 at Dallas Opera and has since been seen in Canada, Australia and San Diego (the other co-commissioners). The current run (through November 2) is being recorded for showing on PBS (and perhaps other opera-interested television venues around the world) by the War Memorial’s network of hidden cameras and state-of-the-art control room. It will be worth seeing—and hearing. Heggie’s vocal writing has been justly praised. Singers like him because he knows how to write empathetically for the voice. Audiences respond to his directness and unabashed willingness to make music grateful to the ear, and his facility for hitting just the right emotional tone. His first opera, Dead Man Walking, heard first at San Francisco Opera in 2000, has become an audience favorite.

Naysayers complain that his music can sound derivative, and yes, at moments one might be reminded of Britten or Bernstein—perhaps Debussy. But the four-chord, chromatic motif that floats unmoored in the first quiet phrase of the prelude is pure Heggie, just as surely as the opening thrust of Der Rosenkavalier is unmistakably Richard Strauss. Heggie derives virtually every phrase in the opera from this initial short cell, which gives the opera a welcome cohesion. Composers always seem to be at their best when they spin out endless possibilities from a germ of an idea, and Heggie is no exception.

During the prelude, white-on-black projections suggest first a starry sky, lines connecting the dots finally into a ship that rights itself into the outlines of masts and a hull, and then the curtain rises on a darkened stage. Tellingly, we find ourselves in a personality clash. Queequeg (the Maori baritone Jonathan Lemalu), a rough-hewn Polynesian harpooner, is intoning a prayer in his native tongue. A few feet away, men are sleeping, and Greenhorn (tenor Stephen Costello) rolls over to complain. As the scene plays out a friendship forms.

This is the first of many telling and musically arresting duets—the vocal glories of this score. The main confrontation pits Captain Ahab—whose obsession with exacting retribution from the great white whale known as Moby Dick puts himself and everyone on the ship in mortal danger—against Starbuck, his first mate, whose Christian conscience repeatedly struggles to bring Ahab back from the brink. As Ahab, Jay Hunter Morris’s repeated forays into the high register of his tenor’s range reflects his character’s madness, yet he lets Heggie’s music tell the story, even as he remains physically unmoved. (Morris, who sang the role in Australia and San Diego, replaced Ben Heppner, the original Ahab, who withdrew from this run for health reasons.) Starbuck’s music, on the hand, feels more centered and simply eloquent, rendered expressively by baritone Morgan Smith. Their duet in Act I in which Ahab nearly kills Starbuck, and the Act I closer in which Starbuck holds a rifle on the sleeping Ahab, are riveting.

The other resonant relationship involves Greenhorn (Ishmael of the novel), out in the world for the first time, and Queequeg, also an outsider and the only person on the ship to befriend him. Their Act II duet, sung while clinging to the ship’s masts surrounded by space on all sides, weaves Stephen Costello’s lyric tenor sinuously with Lemalu’s resonant baritone. Greenhorn wants to go with Queequeg to his tiny native island. The poignancy, and the love, are unmistakable.

Whaling boats. Photo by Cory Weaver

The scenes of the crew on deck employ chanteys and rise to some rousing musical climaxes. Individual characters are drawn well, too, especially the gruffly comic second mate Stubb (baritone Robert Orth) and the third mate Flask (tenor Matthew O’Neill). Baritone Joo Won Kang made a fine impression as the offstage Captain Gardiner, commander of the ship that encounters Ahab’s near the end.

The only female voice in the cast is soprano Talise Trevigne as Pip, the cabin boy whose disappearance on a whale hunt sends the crew into a frenzy. Her slight frame and energy are wonderfully effective, and the scene in which she is suspended in front of projections of the broad sea conveyed a wonderful sense of quiet madness. Her voice seems to have taken on more of a womanly bloom, rather than the soubrette-like clarity of, say, an Oscar (in Un Ballo in Maschera).

The set provides the details of a ship with masts and rigging, dropping scrims that suggest sails. The surface curves sharply up at the back, with rungs for climbing. On the bare stage, the white wooden planks display projections clearly, as in Pip’s lost-at-sea moment. During the whale hunts, the crew on the rungs is surrounded by projections of the whaling boats, rocking gently against waves. It’s a theatrical coup.

The climactic scene, wherein Ahab sacrifices himself and nearly all of his crew in his futile quest, focuses entirely on the men in their boats. The only glimpse of the title character is a massive view of one of his eyes. The music here is surprisingly lyrical, playing against a natural desire for something cataclysmic, and it leads seamlessly into the quiet coda. Greenhorn floats on Queequeg’s coffin, the only survivor of the Pequod, and the music ends with the haunting chords of the opening.

Harvey Steiman