I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an opera based on Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. I mean, it had to be better than an opera based on Nixon’s visit to China, right? But how would this high-seas adventure work on stage exactly?
Quite well as it turns out. Although the lack of a whale coming out at the end, even were it to resemble some sort of lame operatic Universal Studios ride, was a bit disappointing.
While many of the recent operas I have seen at the San Francisco Opera have been less than impressive set-wise, I loved this production’s design. So while I rarely go into the details of specific productions, I feel I must give a shout-out here to the sets by Robert Brill, the lighting by Gavan Swift, and the projections by Elaine J. McCarthy and Shawn E. Boyle, which conveyed both the intricacies of a whaling ship (my mind went immediately to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series) and the vastness of the ocean and sky.
Composer Jake Heggie’s music manages to do this as well. I can’t quite explain it, but, having seen I Capuleti e i Montecchi just a week before, and thinking that there was often a large disconnect between that opera’s music and libretto, here I felt the music fit perfectly. From the opening bars of the overture, I loved it—it was lush and melodic and felt like a great film score from the Korngold era. I look forward to one day having a recording.
The story itself works quite well. As one might expect, the opera strips away the seemingly endless tangents of the novel to focus on Captain Ahab’s quest to find and kill Moby Dick, the white whale who had taken off his leg on an earlier voyage. Starbuck, the first mate, represents the rational counterpoint to Ahab’s madness. The original narrator of the book, Ishamel, here called Greenhorn, represents the new-to-whaling perspective, and is guided by Queequeg, the Pacific Islander he befriends (and my favorite character when I read this in high school).
It didn’t hurt to have such an accomplished cast, most of whom had the roles composed around their voices and sang in the world premiere of this opera back in Dallas in 2010. The notable exception was Jay Hunter Morris (not because he wasn’t stellar, but because he stepped in to sing the entire run of Captain Ahab, after the original Ahab for this performance, Ben Heppner, withdrew from this production). Although everyone sounded beautiful, the standout for me was Starbuck, baritone Morgan Smith. He so impressed me at the end of Act I that I found myself tweeting about him during intermission. I may have called him a hottie. I don’t know, it’s all a blur, and my whole thought process on Battlestar Galactica is now skewed.
Where was I? Oh, yes, Moby-Dick. I had planned to reread the novel before seeing the opera, but, with War and Peace still sitting on the nightstand, I knew that would never happen. I instead decided to follow along with the Moby Dick Big Read, where celebrities and unknowns are reading the novel chapter by chapter, starting in mid-September and finishing in January. Chapter 1 is read by Tilda Swinton; other readers include Simon Callow, Stephen Fry, and Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the shipwreck that inspired Moby-Dick. Check it out.
Moby-Dick is playing this Tuesday, October 30, and again on Friday, November 2, at the War Memorial Opera House.