Better Than The Real Thing: San Diego Opera’s ‘Moby-Dick’

On a recent trip to Maui I took a whaling cruise. What unfolded before my disbelieving eyes almost sent me careening overboard: a new calf breeching, instantly followed by its mother showing how it was done. A rare occurrence, we were told. What, I asked myself, could possibly top that?

The answer became apparent after Saturday night’s San Diego Opera premiere of American composer Jake Heggie’s sweeping operatic version of Herman Melville’s epic tale, ‘Moby-Dick’. With its brilliant staging, sensational cast, and most of all its uniquely poetic musical rendering by Heggie, the evening did not disappoint.

Already at a disadvantage from the last minute cancellation of SD Opera’s Resident Conductor Karen Keltner due to ill health, the company rallied around the riggings for this massively ambitious production. Illness in fact seemed to plague this opera almost from its inception, having forced Heggie’s original librettist, celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, to bow out. He was replaced by Gene Scheer, whose libretto has distilled the complexities of Melville’s notoriously complex story into a lean, perfect whole. From the very first notes composer Heggie captures the atmosphere of the sea and, without resorting to melodrama, builds upon it with imagery that inexorably moves the story forward to its tragic end.

In an interview with Maestro Keltner, she aptly described Heggie’s music as “seductively beautiful, a banquet for the ears…rhythmically sophisticated, yet emotionally compelling.” This reviewer wholeheartedly agrees. Heggie, who has shown his uniquely melodic, passionate style in such critically acclaimed operas as Dead Man Walking and The End of the Affair, never ceases to draw in the audience by sheer emotion. From the opening rocking sea motif to the primeval cry, “Death to Moby-Dick!” the listener’s gut is squeezed tight and taken for a ride.

The cast beautifully supported the music’s vocal demands. Tenor Ben Heppner, who created the role of Ahab in the critically acclaimed 2010 Dallas Opera premiere, has been a personal favorite of mine since I first accompanied his magnificent heldentenor from the first violin section of the Metropolitan Opera at that company’s regional audition winners’ concert in 1988. If he showed signs of struggle at times with this extremely taxing protagonists’ role, he always managed to handle any difficulties with his usual great stage presence.

Others who reprised their Dallas roles included Morgan Smith as Starbuck, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg, and Talise Trevigne as Pip. Smith’s sensuous baritone impressed throughout the evening, whether in his long-awaited first-act aria or his poignant duet with Ahab in act two. Jonathan Boyd‘s fresh young tenor garnered attention for its beauty, and his portrayal of the pivotal character of Greenhorn was sympathetic. In an interesting bit of casting, New Zealand-born Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu brought authenticity to his character portrayal of the islander Queequeg while projecting his generous-sized bass with authority. Ms. Trevigne, the sole female in the cast and known to San Diego audiences as last season’s Micäela in Carmen, sparkled as Pip and projected her fresh soprano voice with ease over the heaviest orchestral moments. Chorus Master Charles F. Prestinari and his male chorus deserve special mention for a vocal contribution that was robust and unflagging in its intensity. Add to that a half dozen acrobats fighting and sliding into the sea (ably coordinated by Fletcher Runyon), and you’ve got a spectacle rarely seen on the opera stage.

The production itself is a marvel. As in a finely tuned Hollywood film, the roster of contributors includes everything from a Fight Director (James Newcomb, a SDO veteran) to a Projection Designer (Elaine J. McCarthy, making her SDO debut). Robert Brill‘s sets meshed perfectly with Ms. McCarthy’s projections, realistically portraying ship and sea, while debut Lighting Designer Donald Holder brilliantly captured every nuance of the ever-changing seascape. Whether calm or stormy, starlit or tinged with sunset orange, the sets and lighting extend out into the audience, thrusting the spectator directly into the action and atmosphere. Director Leonard Foglia recreated his Dallas staging for San Diego with a combination of dynamism and sensitivity.

From the pit, Maestro Keltner’s last minute replacement, Joseph Mechavich, former Principal Conductor and Music Director of Kentucky Opera, made his SDO debut. Having conducted this co-production of Moby-Dick at Calgary Opera, Maestro Mechavich demonstrated he was capable of keeping the soloists and male chorus in sync with the orchestra without sacrificing the delicate textures of Mr. Heggie’s orchestration.

Mr. Foglia’s uniquely creative yet difficult staging requires the men, among other things, to literally hang from pegs mounted into the sets that represent the ship’s rigging. It’s a fantastic concept, and Mr. Mechavich handled the demanding situation with admirable dexterity.

If you did not catch Saturday night’s premiere, there will be three more performances, Tues. Feb. 21 at 7 pm, Fri. Feb. 24 at 8 pm, and Sun. Feb. 26 at 2 pm.

Don’t miss this production.  It will send you overboard with delight.

Photos: Ken Howard

4 thoughts on “Better Than The Real Thing: San Diego Opera’s ‘Moby-Dick’

  1. I also greatly enjoyed the production and at a party after the show, received a complementary copy of of CD of highlights from the Dallas production. After listening to the music again, I am convinced that this opera should stay in the repertory, a rare thing for a “modern” opera.

  2. Just a quick correction. There are 15 climbers and acrobats. Their fight was choreographed by the inimitable James Newcomb (listed in the program as Fight Choreographer), and the sliding into the sea was put together as a joint effort between director, Leonard Foglia, and choreographer, Keturah Stickann. Fletcher Runyon, as stunt coordinator, was there to assist in safety for all of the climbing.

    1. Thanks for the extra info! I thought the podcast said half a dozen, but I’m always glad for other input.

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