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San Francisco Opera
Morris and Smith in the SFO premiere of Moby-Dick
© Cory Weaver 2013
Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick received a hero's welcome at its first San Francisco Opera performance on October 10 at the War Memorial Opera House. Since its 2010 world premiere at Dallas Opera, Heggie's opera has been performed in Calgary, South Australia and San Diego. But the composer resides in San Francisco, and this opening night had the feel of a much-anticipated homecoming. It was richly deserved: Moby-Dick is both adroitly scored and theatrically arresting. The composer's neo-Romantic palette flatters the voice, revels in telling orchestral detail and swells to enveloping climaxes. Faced with the task of reducing Herman Melville's leviathan novel to a character-driven drama for contemporary audiences, Gene Scheer delivered a workable and often inventive libretto. The result is a mesmerizing flow of scenes, arias and ensembles, with luminous high points coming at frequent intervals — Ahab's gripping Act I "I leave a white and turbid wake"; a ravishing number for Starbuck to conclude the first half; a poignant Act II duet for the young sailor Greenhorn and the Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg; and the heart-stopping near-Verdian ensemble "We are one body breathing, pulling to the beat of your shining heart."
The staging, first seen at Dallas Opera in 2010 and co-produced with San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera and several other companies, is by Leonard Foglia, who also served as dramaturge. Foglia created moving tableaux, with contributions from Robert Brill (sets), Gavan Swift (lighting) and Elaine J. McCarthy (projections) that suggested the Pequod's towering masts, hellish oil-rendering fires and vertiginous forays in whaleboats on the open sea. Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Keturah Stickann (choreography) effectively shaped scenes of fights and fellowship on the ship's massive deck.
Patrick Summers conducted with tremendous sweep and subtlety, and Heggie's music registered with turbulence and disarming sweetness; the score is often borne aloft on woodwinds, and San Francisco's section sounded exemplary. So did the men of Ian Robertson's chorus, who sang with hearty, unflagging energy. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris projected the mad, questing spirit — as well as the ebbing humanity — of Ahab, focusing the inevitable outcome with enormous conviction. Morgan Smith's attractive, flexible baritone made chief mate Starbuck the opera's sympathetic center, and tenor Stephen Costello projected warmth and yearning as the naïve Greenhorn (the Ishmael character). Jonathan Lemalu imparted admirable dimension to the role of the noble native Queequeg. Soprano Talise Trevigne deployed her bright, soaring instrument as the cabin boy, Pip, losing herself at sea with otherworldly grace. Baritone Robert Orth, who created the role of Owen Hart in Heggie's Dead Man Walking at San Francisco Opera a dozen years ago, returned in a nimble, resonant turn as the capering second mate, Stubb.
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