Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s version of the Pequod sailed into the port town of San Diego this weekend. And while things didn’t go much better for Captain Ahab and his crew, the opera Moby-Dick fared pretty well in its West Coast premiere at San Diego Opera on Saturday. The show first surfaced in landlocked Dallas, TX in 2010 to fairly glowing reviews. (I myself had several reservations at the time.) And despite some fateful changes in casting, this solid, enjoyable show is rolling into California not only in San Diego, but San Francisco as well later this fall. Moby-Dick has all the qualities that should make it as successful as Heggie’s prior opera Dead Man Walking, and on a second viewing, the things that it had going for it before are still clearly assets. It has an accessible score, well written libretto and enough spectacle to please most audiences. It’s undoubtedly an opera in every sense of the word, and though it doesn’t push boundaries, it will undoubtedly make its own fans.
I’m increasingly impressed with Gene Scheer’s libretto. It’s smart in so many ways managing to stay clearly focused on a few of Melville’s central themes and creating some dramatic tension around them. He must still deal with the episodic nature of the novel and the fact that nothing much happens in it until the whale shows up for the big rumble in the end. But Scheer shrewdly picks and chooses the story elements that are left behind, giving everyone in the ensemble cast their turn to shine. There is poetry here, but nothing that sounds silly or wince inducing. Then there is Leonard Foglia’s attractive and well thought-out production with sets designed by Robert Brill and extensive projected video material originally from Elaine J McCarthy and revived under Shawn Boyle. The single curved plane that rises into the flyspace is filled with ropes and sail-like scrims that move about with the changing scenes. The video component is extensive using both the sails and the back wall as a surface for any number of scenic elements. Perhaps the most exciting are the boat outlines that the cast appear to be riding in as they lower into the sea to hunt whales. The show is good looking with plenty of motion, and Foglia knows what to do with the large chorus and cast to keep them from looking like they’re just standing around on a boat deck.
Heggie’s music continues to be the weakest thing about the show. That isn’t to say that it isn’t lovely at times, and it has the kind of proverbial “hummable tunes” audiences supposedly want. Conductor Joseph Mechavich who led the opera in its second outing in Calgary, gave the score a very favorable performance with San Diego’s orchestra forces. There are memorable arias for Ahab, Greenhorn, and Starbuck, and well as a tenor and baritone duet in the climactic scene. But the shadow cast by Britten’s Billy Budd can’t be escaped, and while Heggie tries to shake it, the overall sound palette here is comparatively tepid. Moby-Dick avoids being a rehash of Britten, but it doesn’t necessarily strike out on its own to say something different either. The overall strong cast is nearly identical to the Dallas premiere. Morgan Smith makes a very sexy and vocally resonant Starbuck who becomes the centerpiece of the show. His scene debating whether or not to kill Ahab while he sleeps is one of the highlights of the show. Jonathan Lemalu is again Queequeg who opens the show with a prayer in his character’s native tongue. Talise Trevigne reprises her bright sounding young pants role as Pip. She has a lot to do physically here including an aria sung while suspended with fly wires that was quite touching. The new member to the cast was Jonathan Boyd taking over the role of Greenhorn created by Stephen Costello. He’s got one of the trickier bits in the opera with the closing scene and he excelled here making the moment feel weighty and not slipping into unintended comedy.
Of course, there is also the matter of the Ahab, tenor Ben Heppner. Heppner created the role in Dallas and was not scheduled to return to it again in California, with Jay Hunter Morris taking his place. But oh what a difference Wagner’s music makes on fortunes in the opera world. After some exceedingly rocky vocal patches for Heppner including his appearance as Lohengrin at L.A. Opera in December 2010, he began backing out of commitments almost as quickly as Morris began booking them. Morris is now starring as Siegfried on the big screen for the Metropolitan Opera and booking A-cast Wagner roles right and left around the world. Meanwhile, Heppner is back in the role he created now in California. He’s an imposing and troubled Ahab and considering he spends all of the opera hobbling about with his knee on a peg leg, he provides the show with its darker elements. But sadly, his vocal troubles continue. He struggled much more than in Dallas with cracking and strain in much of the upper register. Here’s hoping things pick up for him, but in his current state, it’s hard to imagine how he’s going to pull off Tristan opposite Nina Stemme in Houston in 2013.
Moby-Dick may be the ideal opera for those audiences who don’t think they like contemporary music. It’s not a radical move, and there is pleasant music to listen to. It has a well-written dramatic story with plenty of excitement, and while it’s not a story filled with romance, it does have somewhere to go. And arriving at the end, you do feel you’ve traveled somewhere with these believable characters. There are three more performances over the next several days in San Diego and for those of you up north, you’ll get your chance later this year in San Francisco.
UPDATE: San Diego Opera announced this evening that Ben Heppner has withdrawn from the next performance of Moby-Dock on Tuesday February 21 and the role of Ahab will instead be sung by Jay Hunter Morris.