OVERNIGHT REVIEW: “Moby-Dick” sails into San Diego

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



San Diego Opera: Moby-Dick

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 San Diego Civic Theatre

Next performances: Friday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

Information: www.sdopera.com



Dazzling projections are part of the production of the opera
Moby-Dick, now playing at San Diego
Opera. Photo by Karen Almond (Dallas



Moby-Dick — a
stunning new opera by composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer and director
and dramaturg Leonard Foglia — has dropped anchor in San Diego this week (last
night I saw the second of four performances in San Diego’s Civic Theatre). Moby-Dick, the opera, comes with a
backstory worthy of novelist Herman Melville (who wrote the original story in
1851). It’s also a vision of what opera may look like from this time forward.


Heggie — who up to this time has been best known for his
2000 opera Dead Man Walking — first
considered Melville’s novel as a potential opera in 2005. It was originally
written to open Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House in 2010; eventually four
other companies signed on as co-commissioners. San Diego Opera is the fourth to
present the work; Australia Opera and Calgary Opera followed the Dallas
premiere last April; San Francisco Opera gets its turn this fall. Notably
absent from the list, of course, is LA Opera.


Playwright Terrence McNally originally collaborated with
Heggie on the libretto but dropped out for unspecified reasons. Enter Scheer,
who had worked with Heggie on a several projects. Although asked by Heggie to
retain some of McNally’s original suggestions, Scheer did an excellent job of
streamlining Melville’s novel and providing dialogue that brought all of the
major characters to life. Scheer also reordered the story; the book’s famous
opening line, “Call Me Ishmael,” is
at the end of the opera and Scheer has made Ishmael an older and wiser
Greenhorn instead of a separate character.


It’s also worth noting that Heggie and Scheer spent April
2008 in Nantucket, Mass., where the novel is based. They met with author
Nathaniel Philbrick, whose novel, The
Heart of the Sea,
related the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 (the tragedy
later inspired Meville’s epic tale).


Foglia — who directed Dead
Man Walking
for several companies — and his scenic designer, Robert Brill,
have created a stunning set for Moby-Dick
that, among other things, uses a floor that curves upward sharply at the
back (think of a skateboard ramp made of wood). Scrims and moving backdrops
helped focus the nine scenes and several characters (most notably, Pip), are
required to sing and act while suspended on wires hung from the ceiling.


About the only major problem wasn’t connected with the set.
The San Diego Civic Theatre was built long before supertitles came into being
and the house elected (for no good reason, that I can discern) to suspend the
supertitle monitor below the top of the proscenium. That meant that any time a
character ascended one of the ship’s masts (most critically, Ahab), he was
invisible to a large segment of those of us in the balcony (and the vocal
projections were hampered as well). Every director and stage designer should
remember to check the sightlines from the entire house, not just from the
orchestra seats.


The most impressive aspects of the scenic design, however,
are the projections (originally done by Elaine J. McCarthy and realized in San
Diego by Shawn Boyle), which create the heavens, seas, the Pequod, and the whaling boats with effects that would have been
worthy of George Lucas. The opening sequence, one of the most imaginative I’ve
ever seen and set to the opera’s overture, brought forth a salvo of applause
last night from the audience at the San Diego Civic Theatre. The effective
original lighting design was by Donald Holder and realized in San Diego by
Gavan Swift. Jane Greenwood designed the atmospheric costumes.


Not everyone is in love with Jake Heggie as a composer;
among other things, he’s often tarred with that worst of modern epithets, tonal (many similar kvetches were lobbed
at Daniel Catn after the premiere of his highly successful opera Il Postino last year at LA Opera). No
matter; like Catn, Heggie has created a gripping, dramatic, melodic score that
carries the story well for the three-hour production. His arias bring real
pathos and depth to the characters and there’s plenty of sweeping music and
hummable tunes to make most everyone leave the hall happy.


Just getting this production to the San Diego stage was a
triumph of perseverance, good company management, and luck. First, Resident
Conductor Karen Keltner had to pull out due to illness. In her place, the
company imported Joseph Mechavich, who had conducted the Calgary Opera
presentation last fall (a story about the switch is HERE). Mechavich led 85
members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra (which doubles as the opera
company’s orchestra) in a committed performance that almost never flagged.
Moreover, even with that large an orchestra, the sound rarely overpowered the


The conductor switch was just the beginning. You can read
about the multiple machinations for the role of Ahab HERE (read the threads for
the full story) but in the final installment, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who
had created the role in Dallas, struggled with illness in Saturday night’s San
Diego opening performance. To the rescue came Jay Hunter Morris, who nine days
previously had been singing the role of Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s
new production of Gotterdamerung but
who had created the role of Ahab with Australia Opera last summer. Hunter will
finish out the San Diego run.


Despite the facts that no amount of makeup or costumes can
make Morris (he appears much younger than his 48 years) look like a
58-year-old, weather-beaten sea captain and that he had little, if any time, to
work with the current cast before last night, Morris cut a compelling figure as
Ahab. His gleaming tenor voice is a shade light for a role that really calls
for a heldentenor (one could easily
imagine Jon Vickers dominating this role), but Morris unraveled Ahab’s
complicated, tormented character and sang with alternating amounts of majesty
and pathos. His final duet with Starbuck when he laments on his 40 years at sea
and what that has cost him personally, was gripping.


To a degree, Starbuck dominates this opera and Morgan Smith,
who created the role in Dallas, made for a hunky Starbuck who sang with a rich,
resonant voice. His scene just before intermission when he contemplates killing
Ahab was profoundly moving.


Jonathan Lemalu reprised his role as Queequeg, Jonathan Boyd
sang the crucial role of Greenhorn with equal amounts of power and grace, and
Talise Trevigne, another original Dallas performer, displayed a rich soprano
voice and sharply delineated character in the “trousers role” of Pip. She was
particularly impressive singing as she hung suspended on a wire.


The other cast members were Matthew O’Neill (Flask), Robert
Orth (Stubb), Ernest Pinamonti (Tashtego), Kenneth Anderson (Daggoo), Chad
Frisque (Nantucket sailor), James Schindler (Spanish sailor) and Malcolm
MacKenzie, as the offstage Captain Gardiner). The crew of the Pequod made a might sound as a chorus
and the diction of the entire cast was exemplary; except for ensemble numbers,
supertitles were almost never needed.


Similar to Catn’s Il
Heggie’s Moby-Dick is a
crowd-pleasing opera but, again like Il
it’s richer and deeper than just that. Moreover, as companies plan
future performances of all operas, they’re going to have to think seriously
about what Foglia and his team created in terms of this production. It’s going
to be hard for many who will see Moby-Dick
to be satisfied with your standard painted backdrops again. And Morris, who has
cemented his reputation as the best pinch hitter since Manny Mota as playing
for the Dodgers, clearly has a role that he may be singing for many years to




Despite the fact that it’s not on the company’s Web site
(at least not that I could find), SD Opera does have a rush program with
tickets being offered two hours before each program. However ticket sales for
the final two performances are reportedly running very strong, so — especially
if you’re coming from a long distance — you may want to talk the box office
before you make the trip. (619) 533-7000, M-F, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Also not on the Web site is that there’s a lecture an hour
before each performance. Moreover, neither of the excellent articles by Heggie
or Scheer printed in the program are posted online, although there are videos
and podcasts available (believe it or not, SD Opera folks, some of us still

The production ran just under three hours last night,
including one intermission.

If you’re traveling from Los Angeles south, you can make
the trip on for Sunday’s 2 p.m. performance on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. You
can drive it faster, but if you’re traveling alone, the $72 RT fare is far less
than the real cost to operate your car for 250 miles RT, plus parking. You will
probably arrive in time for a quick bite before the performance; Downtown
Johnny Brown’s is a bar and restaurant across the plaza from the Civic Theatre
that, among other things, offers free Wifi and serves an excellent bacon
cheeseburger. (LINK). Unfortunately, you can’t make the train trip Friday night
because trains back to L.A. don’t run late enough.



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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