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

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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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

 

58623-moby2.jpg

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

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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
singers.

 

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
Postino,
Heggie’s Moby-Dick is a
crowd-pleasing opera but, again like Il
Postino,
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
come.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

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
read).

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.

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

SAME-DAY REVIEW: Met’s “Siegfried” live in HD in theaters

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Metropolitan Opera:
Live in HD — Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Saturday, November 5, 2011 Alhambra Renaissance 14 Theater

Encore performance: TBD

Next segment: Gotterdmerng,
telecast on Feb. 11 beginning at 9 a.m. (PST)

Information: www.metopera.org

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For reasons not explained (at least not that I have seen),
the encore performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” telecast of
Wagner’s Siegfried is listed as TBD.
Part of the issue may be finding a time slot in theaters for a 5-hour-plus-long
telecast. But whenever it is, you don’t want to miss it, especially if you’re a
Wagner fan, so keep checking the Met’s Web site (above).

 

As most opera lovers know, the Met has been unveiling
segments of its new production of Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, over the past
year so, leading to three productions of the entire cycle beginning April 7,
2012 (see the Hemidemisemiquaver
below).

 

The new production, which replaced a 20-year-old version,
was designed by Canadian Robert LePage and is dominated by an extremely large,
heavy (45 tons, so heavy that the Met had to install three 65-fooot steel
girders to reinforce its stage), complicated and expensive apparatus known by
some as “The Machine,” which uses 24 Fafner-sized metal planks that rotate,
pivot, move up and down, etc. to create sets for the four operas.

 

As was the case with LA Opera’s Ring cycle a few years ago, things seem to be improving
significantly for the Met’s Ring as
it moves forward, at least based on what I saw at my local movie theater today.
Part of that is due to improvements in the technology, including the addition of
some striking video projections and 3D animation effects. However, those took a
back seat to the music: the Met Orchestra, led by the company’s Principal
Conductor, Fabio Luisi, and the cast, headed by what amounts to a Peggy Sawyer
story (think of the 42nd St. movie)
for American tenor Jay Hunter Morris.

 

Morris, who hails from Paris, Texas and speaks with a
distinctive drawl (that doesn’t show up when he sings German), replaced Gary
Lehman in the title role eight days before opening night when the latter came
down with an undisclosed illness. Morris wasn’t exactly Sawyer (who stepped
onstage as literally an overnight replacement) and this wasn’t exactly new; he
actually made the same sort of rescue earlier in the year when he replaced Ian
Storey in the same role for San Francisco Opera’s Ring.

 

Nonetheless, Morris had to get up to speed on a complicated
production, mesh with cast members who were already deep into rehearsal, and
get ready to sing at the Met for the first time (the opening of the telecast showed
him getting lost trying to find the Met cafeteria and exclaiming at the view of
the empty opera house from the orchestra pit).

 

The first thing to say is that Morris’ youthful good looks
mean that he comes as close to what Wagner imagined for the youthful Siegfried
as probably anyone. In truth, Wagner asked for the impossible; he wanted a
teenager who could sing like an adult heldentenor
for five or so hours, finishing with a duet with a soprano who has been
resting until those climactic moments. You can get one or the other but not
both, but Morris comes pretty darned close to the ideal. His voice doesn’t
quite have that heldentenor ring yet
but it is bright and gleaming. He held his own with Deborah Voigt as Brnnhilde
and sang with lyrical grace whenever possible. Moreover, Morris acted the role
with real sensitivity (as did Voigt) — more on that in a moment.

 

Perhaps more than anything, today’s telecast was another
potent argument for the validity — and indeed, in some ways, the superiority –
of seeing an opera in the movie theaters. I don’t want to debate the merits of
seeing a production live as opposed to telecast from a sound point of view or
the electricity that can leap between performer and audience in a live house on
the best of days. Nonetheless, those in the theaters enjoyed some visuals that
can’t possibly have been seen from most of the seats in the opera house.

 

Two examples: When Morris and Voigt were singing their final
35-minute duet, there was a moment when Voigt was lamenting her fate and Morris
gave her a swift — almost infinitesimal — side glance of sympathy (mirth?
pathos?). I doubt anyone in the Met could have seen it. Moreover, I wonder how
many people in the opera house could have seen how the woodbird was “singing”
in synch with soprano Modjca Erdmann (sort of a reverse Milli Vanilli); an
intermission interview revealed that the singer was actually controlling the
animation effect through her voice. Those were just two of many such episodes.

 

As usual, the intermission features were fascinating,
beginning with the exhilaration being felt by the singers as the came offstage
at the end of each act. A segment on Morris showed him collapsing on a couch in
his dressing room at the end of Act II in dress rehearsal, pulling off the infamous
ring and saying, “Here, take it!” He did the same thing, playfully, to Rene
Fleming, who was the performance hostess, at the end of Act II today. A lengthy
feature on Morris’ rise to this point in his career displayed a great deal of
humanity from the singer — he’s still somewhat in the “don’t pinch me in case I
wake up” mode.

 

In addition to Morris, the balance of the cast was
excellent. Voigt has gotten snipes in reviews for her singing but I thought she
sounded lustrous today and brought real pathos to the role of the woman who
goes to sleep as a goddess 18 years earlier (as she joked in an interview –
there was an 18-year-gap between when Wagner completed Act II and began Act
III) and wakes up as a mortal. Moreover, she and Morris genuinely seemed
smitten with each other by the final curtain (it doesn’t always happen).

 

Bryn Terfel sang with impressive majesty as the Wanderer;
he’s clearly a worthy successor to Thomas Stewart and James Morris in the Met’s
Wotan/Wanderer legacy, and if he isn’t then Eric Owens, whose dark bass voice
was perfect for the malevolent Alberich, could be next in line.

 

Another star was Gerhard Siegel as Mime; he’s sung the role
of Siegfried many times and he has that sort of voice, which was on full
display as he portrayed the scheming dward. Siegel also related in an
intermission that when he was singing in the Met’s 2009 presentation of the Ring, he suffered a heart attack (“The
Met saved my life,” he exclaimed fervently). Hans-Peter Knig boomed darkly as
Fafner.

 

The Met Orchestra remains one of the marvels of the musical
world; it hasn’t lost a beat under Luisi’s ministrations. The Italian maestro
moved things along briskly — the performance lasted far less than the six hours
that the Met’s Web site had forecast. Luisi also showed a great deal of
sensitivity in accompanying his cast and really let Wagner’s music speak for
itself.

 

Speaking of Fafner, the Met follows in a long tradition of
being unable to come up with a convincing dragon. You’d think with the amount
of money being spent on this production that someone could have created
something more convincing than a head with sharp teeth and a long neck. As I
said, others have failed, as well. The performance did have a bear that made a
brief appearance in Act I, although he looked more cuddly than ferocious.

 

The video projections on the 24 giant planks were striking
and, in most cases, added to the drama. The video wizards managed to create an
effective stream that, inexplicably, seemed to run through Mimi’s hut/cave and
also added reflections in the water that showed up when Siegfried is wondering
how he can be related to Mime. The projections also created a realistic forest
for Act II, although Fafner’s cave was somewhat indistinguishable.

 

The real oddities came in Act III. The pulsating prelude was
accompanied by Wotan/Wanderer stirring a lake that eventually dissolved into a
glacier (ask not why). After Siegfried got through the fire surrounding the
rock where Brnnhilde lay asleep (highly effective) he seemed to have trouble
discerning someone lying on the rock; it was difficult to see it in the movie
theater and I suspect might have been even more incomprehensible inside the
Met.

 

All of these are minor quibbles in the grand (5-hour-plus)
scheme of things. As I said, things seem to be looking up for the cycle and, as
was the case in Los Angeles, I suspect that the totality of the Met’s cycle
will be much greater than its individual parts that we’ve seen so far. If
anyone has a few thousand dollars and wants to sponsor me, I’d love to go.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

When the Met announced it would begin telecasting operas
into movie theaters, those of us on the West Coast joked that people might come
in their pajamas. That certainly was possible today with a 9 a.m. start time
but a good-sized crowd showed up at the Alhambra Renaissance 14 Theater.

Considering the kvetching that occurred when LA Opera ran
its cycles over a nine-day cycle (the traditional cycle — i.e., Bayreuth –
usually takes six days), it’s interesting to note that the first of the Met’s
cycles begins April 7 and ends April 24, while the second and third cycles
stretch over eight days each.

Although James Levine is currently listed as the conductor
for 2012 Ring cycles, Fabio Luisi
will be conducting the performances of Gotterdmerng,
which begin January 27 (the theater telecast is slated for Feb. 11) while
Levine continues to recuperate from back surgery. Stories printed yesterday
said that a decision on whether Levine would conduct the cycles would be made
within the next two months.

Casts announced for the cycles also involve some
interesting changes. Gary Lehman, who was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris for
this Siegfried and the
January-February Gotterdmerng, is
currently slated to sing the roles in the cycles. Seems a little unfair for
Morris. Meanwhile, Deborah Voigt will be alternating roles with Swedish
Katarina Dalayman in the three cycles.

Morris was replacing Lehman who replaced Ben Heffner, who
pulled out in February. That eventually set off a set of musical chairs that
involves San Diego Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. Read about it HERE.

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