Weekly Update, Feb 11, 2014

A stunning new DVD: Moby-Dick, the opera

Composer Jake Heggie’s operatic 2012 triumph Moby-Dick is now available on DVD. Those who saw it in its world premiere* production by the San Francisco Opera, or on a PBS telecast, will probably want to own a copy. The SF production was spectacular on every point and may prove to be the gateway into opera for aficionados to come. And for both old-timers and newcomers, what’s not to like? Heggie’s setting of Melville’s masterpiece of madness is opera in the grand tradition, with hummable tunes, arias, duets, ensembles apPBS3-17441282dtnd big choruses. Like Puccini’s, its music follows the narrative with exceptional economy and tautness. Its two hours and twenty minutes seem to fly by. 

But for all of Heggie’s lyrico-dramatic mastery, the real miracle here is Gene Scheer’s libretto. In distilling the essence of Melville’s timeless epic and repainting it for the stage Scheer has catapulted himself above all other versions, including film, ever produced. The lines of conflict between Ahab’s super-human obsession and Starbuck’s moral authority are intensified into crisis, even as Ahab whips the crew into his mad vision. A key and crucially intimate relationship develops between the characters Greenhorn (Stephen Costello) and Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu). (Greenhorn, new to whaling, is actually Ishmael, but he only calls himself that as the single survivor of the Pequod wreck at the end of the performance.) Queequeg takes Greenhorn as his pupil and teaches him the craft of harpooning in a technical explanation that Scheer and Heggie pull off with remarkable grace. Jay Hunter Morris is Ahab, Morgan Smith is First Mate Starbuck. Robert Orth and Matthew O’Neill are, respectively, mates Stubb and Flask who provide moments of levity within the unfolding tragedy. All these roles deserve prizes for intensity and power; even Talise Trevigne as the cabin boy Pip holds her own in this contest of non-stop testosterone.

The computer graphics in this production are utterly breathtaking. As the Pequod Prelude introduces its haunting theme (that recurs throughout the tale) a proscenium-wide image of wate628x471r from below slowly gives way to white lines linking points of the compass at night that converge on a mast and finally the full bow and flank of the ship itself. Later when the harpoon boats are lowered, those graphics are the boats, with the harpoon crews sitting in them. (See Cory Weaver’s photo.) Yet this DVD will also be as popular as the PBS telecast thanks to all the close-ups and camera angles that the live event would not be able to provide.

In the old argument, ‘what’s more important, the words or the music,’ Heggie demurs, putting the music in service to the libretto. That is usually the mark of a great composer. While his music could have been edgier, it might in that case have crossed a line into competition with Scheer’s narrative. That would have been unfortunate. For this production, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Speaking of opera

For a limited time, you can watch the premiere of Charles Wourinen’s Brokeback Mountain on line in the English-language production at Teatro Real in Madrid. Click here, or find it on our Links of Interest page.

Three fresh reviews are posted

PacRep’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar on our Theater Reviews page, Ensemble Monterey on our Music Reviews page, and the SpectorDance Choreographer’s Showcase on our Dance Reviews page. Be sure to visit our Calendar page; the performing arts in our region are in full flood. (Puzzling to me is why rival high schools, Carmel and Robert Louis Stevenson, are both staging The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee just three weeks apart.)

Scott MacClelland, editor *Correction: Moby-Dick premiered at Dallas Opera