Trevigne; Hunter Morris, Costello, Smith, Lemalu; San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Dance Corps, Summers.
Production: Foglia. EuroArts 2059658 (2 DVDs), 142 mins. (opera), 51 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick arrived in October 2012 at San Francisco Opera, the last of the five commissioning companies to mount the piece, which had its world premiere at Dallas's Winspear Opera House in 2010. Frank Zamacona's video work captures the detail and emotional strength of Leonard Foglia's direction, and the seasoned and secure cast under the excellent leadership of Patrick Summers functions both vocally and dramatically as a fully invested ensemble.
Robert Brill's set features sails, rigging and mastheads, masterfully lit by Donald Holder, while excellent projections by Elaine J. McCarthy offer superbly evocative seascapes, sunsets and a bird's-eye view of three manned harpoon boats that capsize. There's even an underwater drowning hallucination, and in a bonus DVD, time-lapse photography of the set niftily reveals some of the theater magic.
Gene Scheer's taut libretto gets across the essence of Herman Melville's dense, moralistic tale of obsession, even keeping some of the original language, as in Ahab's aria "I leave a white and turbid wake," while using standard operatic forms that are well-suited to Heggie's lyrical gifts. Shipboard flavor is provided by chorus numbers with catchy refrains, especially the harpoon-stomping "Death to Moby-Dick!" and "Tough, rare and bloody" (the best way to eat a whale steak) with its sour, lopsided "Spanish ladies" dance number.
Puccini-like tunes drive several effective monologues, but it's the duets that reinforce character development, especially the testy relationship between the revenge-mad Captain Ahab and first mate Starbuck. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, as Ahab, gives a performance that is towering in vocal intensity and dramatic arc, beginning amiably ("What do ye do when ye see a whale?"), with well-projected text and a personal charisma that soon has the crew aligned with his single-minded pursuit. Morgan Smith's deeply moving performance comes to a head in a wrenching scene in which the devout and increasingly isolated Starbuck stands with a loaded gun over the sleeping Ahab. Duets also highlight the touching friendship between the South Sea Island harpooner Queequeg (splendidly brought to life by the nobly sturdy-voiced Jonathan Lemalu) and Greenhorn, a new crew member whose identity is revealed in the opera's final line, "Call me Ishmael," in homage to the novel's famous opening. Tenor Stephen Costello turns in a beautifully sung, expressive performance, particularly in his exploration of subtle vocal textures in the aria "Human madness."
In the trouser role of the cabin boy Pip, Talise Trevigne avoids mannerisms with a warm, rounded soprano and a sweet demeanor, but her diction is far below the superior level set by the men of the cast. In smaller roles, Robert Orth's second mate, Stubb, is consistently engaging, while some tightness in his top notes mars Matthew O'Neill's Flask. Very highly recommended.
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