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Reviewed by:
  • Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie
  • Ryan Ebright
Jake Heggie. Moby-Dick. DVD. Patrick Summers / San Francisco Opera. With Jay Hunter Morris, Stephen Costello, Morgan Smith, Jonathan Lemalu, and Talise Trevigne. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Berlin: EuroArts, 2013. 2059658. $24.99.

Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, based on Herman Melville’s nineteenth-century epic sea novel of the same name, has achieved significant critical and popular acclaim since its premiere in 2010. Commissioned by the Dallas Opera to commemorate their inaugural season at the new Winspear Opera House, Moby-Dick promises, like Heggie’s earlier opera Dead Man Walking, to remain a staple of the modern repertory, and this video makes it easy to understand why. This production, recorded in San Francisco in 2012 during the final leg of the opera’s initial co-commissioned runs, captures the visual and musical aspects of the opera that made it immediately successful.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its immense literary stature and equally daunting length, Moby-Dick has long eluded opera composers (notwithstanding Armando Gentilucci’s 1988 offering). Playwright Terrance McNally, who initially proposed the subject to Heggie but did not continue with the opera, hit upon an ideal solution for adapting the novel to the stage: setting the opera entirely at sea, aboard the whaling ship Pequod. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer had the additional idea of placing the novel’s famous first line—“Call me Ishmael”—as the opera’s last, therefore situating it as a kind of precursor to the events of the novel and providing them with the freedom to condense and adapt the story as needed. Scheer and Heggie, then, distill the action of the book down to its essentials, foregrounding the conflict between the revenge-driven captain Ahab and his first mate Starbuck, and the blossoming friendship between the exotic harpooner Queequeg and Greenhorn, a new crew member who later assumes the name Ishmael.

Heggie’s ability to compose for singers is evident throughout Moby-Dick. The arias, duets, quartets, and choral ensembles are eminently lyrical, suspended over an orchestral [End Page 140] accompaniment firmly rooted in an accessible, neo-tonal harmonic language that occasionally gives hints of Debussy, Britten, Barber, and Glass. Dramatic tenor Jay Hunter Morris brings an appropriate degree of madness and a steely vocal quality to his rendering of Ahab, which contrasts fittingly with Starbuck’s earthy baritone (sung by Morgan Smith). Their Act II duet, “The Symphony,” is one of the stand-out pieces in Moby-Dick, as is the earlier duet between tenor Stephen Costello (Greenhorn) and Jonathan Lemalu (Queequeg) that opens the second act.

The initial production of Moby-Dick owes much of its success to the uniformly strong singing, effective dramatic structure, and ear-pleasing musical idiom. Its visual aspect, however, plays an equally important role. The set design and projections infuse Moby-Dick with a bit of high-tech spectacle that gives the opera a cinematic feel, particularly when experienced via DVD. At certain moments, such as the musical interludes, the video projections fill the frame of the screen entirely, making the viewing experience more filmic and less like watching a recording of a theatrical event. Throughout, the camera work is ideal, providing a balance between close-ups, midrange, and wide shots that adapt to the realities of live performance. A second disc includes interviews with Heggie, Scheer, and a number of the performers, as well as a fascinating time-lapse sequence of the San Francisco Opera stage during the twenty-four hours surrounding the opera’s performance.

Ryan Ebright
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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