Herman Melville’s epic allegorical novel "Moby-Dick" might provide a great basis for an oratorio but prove quite a challenge for treatment as an opera. Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have taken up the challenge, and the results were seen at the San Francisco Opera and then on Public Television later in 2013. That production is now on a EuroArts DVD with a companion disc of interviews.
I have read nothing but praise for this new work, and there are indeed many praiseworthy elements in it. But to my mind it is like so many operas that came after Richard Strauss’ "Der Rosenkavalier" -- scores that sound like movie music, nothing very interesting in the singers’ vocal lines and a good deal of one character shouting at another at top volume.
To be honest, I cannot see the plots of "Lulu" or "Lizzie Borden" or "Moby-Dick" set to the graceful and soul-satisfying melodies of Mozart or even Verdi. Yet how many would play a CD of Britten’s "Turn of the Screw" on a long car ride? Some, of course. Many, I doubt.
I think there are three times in "Moby-Dick" that the singing and orchestration sound like what one used to expect in an "opera." The rest is a good deal of declamation and choruses in which a memorable melody seems to want to be born but doesn’t quite make it. A good instance is the sea chanty in Act I, in which the jollity of the original is suppressed by the musical treatment. This is exactly what Benjamin Britten (whose influence on "Moby-Dick" is very obvious) did to the entire score of "The Beggar’s Opera" when he rewrote it in his own idiom.
So I fall back on what I always say in discussing works like this: consider it musical drama -- or better, drama with music -- and accept it on those terms.
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris won the hearts of movie-house audiences when he was interviewed during the intermissions of the telecasts of "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" last year. His Ahab is well sung, no question. But Morris is such a pleasant chap that he seems to be unable to put any demonic power into his characterization. Even his face has a Father Christmas look that does not help.
But I did admire his pronouncing final consonants such as "k", "t" and "d". Would that other singers, classical and pop, learn to do the same.
The strongest performance is that of Morgan Smith as Starbuck, the only man on board not mesmerized by Ahab. And high praise to soprano Talise Trevigne for her Pip, Ahab’s cabin boy, who goes mad after being rescued at sea. Stephen Costello plays Greenhorn and gets to sing the last line of the opera and the first line of the novel: "Call me Ishmael."
Very little of Melville survives in the libretto, and there are some events not in the novel. The exotic character of Queequeg is played by Jonathan Lemalu, himself a Samoan, who is given an authentic Samoan ritual passage to intone that is picked up by Greenhorn later at a very critical time.
There is a good deal of computer-generated imagery seen on the DVD and (I believe) seen by the audience at the SF Opera. The images of longboats for the harpooners are beautifully done, as is the mighty wave that ends the main story. No, the white whale is never seen.
Patrick Summers conducts the San Francisco Opera forces. Stage Director Leonard Foglia does a good job coordinating the stage movements with the CGI. All in all, I am glad to have seen it and might see it again to catch more of the musical details. I would not, however, want to hear a CD of the work.
The running time of the opera is 144 minutes and of the bonus interviews 51 minutes. Although the work is sung in English, the subtitles are absolutely necessary.
Note: Gift-giving to opera lovers is easy, even if they already have videos of the standard works ("Carmen" and "Boheme"). It is off-beat works like "Moby-Dick" or "Lizzie Borden" that would make thoughtful seasonal presents to friends.
Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.