Jonathan Lemalu and Stephen Costello

Jonathan Lemalu and Stephen Costello

The dress rehearsal for the upcoming run of Jake Heggie’s new (2010) opera based on Melville’s novel took place at the War Memorial Auditorium on Sunday afternoon October 7. Librettist Gene Scheer has, of course, compressed Melville’s epic of obsession, the sea, and almost everything else into the episodes at sea starting from one week after the Pequod left Nantucket until Ishmael’s rescue atop of Queequeg’s coffin and even these events are just part of what’s in the novel, perhaps the most digressive ever written. For example, the Pequod meets only one other ship during the opera and Ahab’s harpooneer Fedallah is gone. But what remains is a host of memorable characters who are fleshed out to real people by both the librettist and composer.

Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab

The protagonist of the work, unsurprisingly, is Ahab. Heggie has written this part for a heldentenor. Ben Heppner was to have sung the bulk of the eight San Francisco performances, but he canceled because of “illness.” This is probably for the best as this punishing role is beyond the tenor’s current vocal resources. Jay Hunter Morris who scored a success in New York as Siegfried in the two final Ring operas is now scheduled to perform all of the eight stagings of the opera. Ahab hits the tenor’s middle range very hard and for a very long time. Morris had the stamina and the vocal goods to triumph in the part despite having to sing with one leg folded back to his thigh. In case you forgot, Moby-Dick ate his leg in their previous encounter. Ahab’s obsession with revenge is what animates all of the opera and Morris depicted it with rigid intensity. There aren’t too many tenors now active who could bring off this punishing part. The SFO is lucky to have Morris for the whole run.

Stephen Costello as Ishmael – rescued at the opera’s conclusion

There’s a second tenor role; this one for a lyric tenor – Ishmael, who is called Greenhorn until the opera’s last three words. You guessed it: “Call me Ishmael.” The young American tenor Stephen Costello was very effective as the opera’s sole survivor. His lyric tenor is pleasant and projects well.  A winner of the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, Costello sang this part in the opera’s world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010. Just at the start of his international career, it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

The role of Starbucks is also one of the opera’s principal parts. Morgan Smith has an ordinary baritone that he uses to great effect. He successfully portrayed the first mate’s humanity and inability to stop Ahab from killing all on board. He has one of the opera’s most moving scenes when in the first act he muses on the real possibility that he will never see his family again. Another important part is that of Queequeg. Jonathan Lemalu was very effective as the tattooed harpooneer who in this version doesn’t change his mind about dying.

The only female role in the opera is that of Pip, Ahab’s cabin boy. Talise Trevigne has a high soprano that was used to great effect. She gets to fly above the stage and then goes mad from her near death experience – drowning. The rest of the cast were all up to all the challenges this powerful opera presents.

Patrick Summers was the conductor. The orchestral writing for the work is large and highly colored. Heggie’s style at times recalls Britten and Shostakovich. Summers brought out the sweep and grandeur that marks Heggie’s depiction of the hunt for the white whale. On occasion, there was so much sound coming from the pit that even Morris was briefly drowned out. My only quibble was that Ahab’s demise at the jaws of the white whale didn’t have the dramatic intensity that some of the opera’s earlier scenes did. The opera’s final lyric scene – Ishmael’s rescue – was beautifully done.

The production was so successful that it will take a while to separate the success of this staging from the work itself compared to its presentation. This mounting had the most effective use of projections that I have yet seen in a staged opera. Elaine J McCarthy was the Projection Designer. She used these projections to depict the heavens, the Pequod, the whaling boats, and at the end Moby-Dick’s eye. A tour de force.

The entire action of the opera takes place on or near the Pequod. Set Designer Robert Brill used ropes and pulleys, a section of the rear wall that opened, and projections to effectively frame all the happening on the ship. The staging was so effective that much of the opera’s appeal was doubtless due to the riveting action, perhaps independent of the music. This is a complex work that requires more than one exposure to determine its staying power. Whether it will be able to sustain a place in the repertoire independent from the novelty of its mounting is a question that will take some time to determine.

Moby-Dick will receive eight performances by the SFO from October 10 until November 2. The first of these will be the San Francisco premiere of the opera. The above photos are all by Robert Cahen.