HEGGIE Moby Dick
An operatic Moby-Dick seems impossible. Scenic demands aside, how could Herman Melville’s anecdotal narrative about ships and whales have operatic sweep? Having established himself as a character-based composer, Jake Heggie doesn’t seem like the first choice for a story requiring so much orchestral scene-painting. Well, the great white whale is never seen. Yet in this DVD, Moby-Dick emerges as an opera that has everything, and takes its place alongside the esteemed oceanic operas Billy Budd and L’amour de loin.
Thanks to computer imagery, the seascapes are indeed possible. Librettist Gene Scheer wove together the personalities of half a dozen crew members in something of a psychological fever chart that traces a progression of longing – for anything from God, to wisdom, to finding home – all dominated by the grandiose madness of Captain Ahab. The only problem not quite solved here is motivating the crew’s obedience; these days, they’d have Ahab in a straitjacket upon leaving port. Instead, the first mention of Moby-Dick is accompanied by unhinged harmonies that the crew seems not to hear.
Musically, undulating string lines form the central motif of the opera, embodying the open-ended expanse of the sea and the existential loneliness that comes with being at its mercy. Ensembles are thoughtful Heggian monologues layered on top of each other that, plus solo soliloquies, create a mosaic of the shipboard life. Queequeg functions as an outlander contrast to the predominating Anglo culture; Greenhorn is the questioner, both of those around him (enabling dramatic exposition) and himself; while the grizzled Stubb simply craves a steak dinner. The confrontations between Starbuck (the voice of sanity) and Ahab at his craziest are as highly charged as anything in verismo opera. Overall, the score’s thematic development is the work of a master composer.
Though the computer imagery goes into overkill, some of the best moments are purely telegenic. Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris gives Ahab a raspy edge, but visually a memorable sense of awe when Moby-Dick is sighted. Singing with more ease and richness of tone than anytime previously, Stephen Costello (Greenhorn) projects a sense of profound personal revelation in the final moments when, rescued at sea, he owns his own name (‘Call me Ishmael’).
While all the performances grew on me during repeated viewings – Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg, Talise Trevigne as Pip and Robert Orth as Stubb – the Gibraltar-like baritone of Morgan Smith (Starbuck) is most consistently magnetic. Patrick Summers was undercut by the dry acoustic of San Francisco’s orchestra pit. But considering how much the sound envelope of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking bloomed over time, I look forward to a similar orchestral metamorphosis in this score.