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There she blows: Moby-Dick in the Bay Area

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

On the evening of October 22, 2012, I was at the San Francisco Opera House, which maintains one of the highest standards of production values in America. In its San Francisco premiere, the presentation of composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick confirmed this impression.

To say that mounting Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as an opera is a daunting task is an understatement of considerable proportions. One has to admire Heggie’s nerve in undertaking it. He, his librettist, the director, and the designer have not completely succeeded for the simple fact that no one could. How do you distill a 600-page novel that poses the question as to whether the order of creation is rational or willfully malign, and that deals with the relationships between freedom and necessity, and between providence and the existence of evil, into a three-hour opera?

To succeed, you would have to have created musically and theatrically something as great as Moby-Dick itself. This Heggie and his colleagues have not done. However, in their striving, they have achieved some theatrically striking moments that are indelibly impressed in my memory, even if the entire effort lacks the final metaphysical coherence that Melville’s text demands.

Heggie certainly made some interesting choices. In Bernard Herrmann’s cantata setting of Moby-Dick, Ahab is a bass and Starbuck a tenor. That seems to make the most dramatic sense. Heggie reverses the order and makes Ahab a tenor and Starbuck a baritone. In the program booklet, Heggie explains that playwright Terrence McNally, who was originally supposed to write the libretto, told him that Ahab should be a heroic tenor… just why exactly he never says. Perhaps this was to propose Ahab as the protagonist, with Moby Dick as the antagonist?

This raises the question: Who or what is Moby Dick, anyway? In his program booklet essay, conductor Patrick Summers makes the astonishing statement that “the unseen whale, of course, is God, the biblical whale of Jonah.” Balderdash. Fortunately Summers is a much better conductor than he is a literary analyst. Better hear from Ahab himself, in the quarter deck scene of the novel, concerning the identity of Moby Dick, since it is his conception of the white whale that drives the drama. He speaks to Starbuck thusly:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

Here we have the metaphysical terms of the drama spelled out explicitly. Ahab is a Manichaean. He believes that the universe is, at least in substantial part, ruled by an evil demiurge, personified in Moby Dick. Providence is malignant. In his severed leg, Ahab has been a victim of its evil. It is, he thinks, a willed evil, and Ahab is going to will it back. Counterpoised to this metaphysical madness is the view of Starbuck, the first mate, who repeatedly tries to remind Ahab that Moby Dick is simply a source of whale oil, and nothing more. To think otherwise, he tells Ahab, is blasphemous. Both the novel and the opera are highly successful in dramatizing these two metaphysical views through the relationship between these two men, though the key quote given above is absent in the opera’s libretto. Of course, the larger lesson is that Ahab’s misshapen view of reality leads not only to his own destruction, but to that of everyone around him.

Unfortunately, in the first act of the opera, the quarterdeck scene is not portrayed with anywhere near the dramatic significance and intensity that it bears in the book. It should be overpowering; it is the point at which Ahab overwhelms his crew with the intensity of his desire for vengeance. We, too, should be overwhelmed. I think this was a misstep on Heggie’s part, though one can sympathize with the problem of not peaking too early in the dramatic action. To his credit, Heggie does build the drama effectively throughout the remainder of the first act, especially in the scene in which Starbuck confronts Ahab about allowing the crew finally to undertake the hunt for a sighted pod of whales and in Starbuck’s contemplated murder of Ahab as he lies sleeping.

However, there were many things that were exactly right and extraordinarily well done in terms of presenting the larger significance of the action. Let us begin with the overture. One of the biggest surprises of the evening was the intimacy of Heggie’s writing. He is particularly adept in his use of winds. Where one might have expected Hovhaness-like soundings of subterranean depths in huge orchestral swells, one received instead a kind of shimmering delicacy. This was counterintuitive and, in its way, enchanting. Though Heggie showed later in the opera that he clearly knows how to depict a storm when one arises, he has written remarkably gentle and reflective music for the magnitude of the subject matter. He is particularly gifted in musically capturing the interior monologues of Ishmael, Starbuck, Ahab, but there is an element of manic madness missing.

What was particularly arresting during the overture were the projected graphics. We first see a depiction of stars in a giant galaxy. All of a sudden, lines begin shooting between these points of light. It seems these points are connected. The apparent randomness of the stars is revealed to be something else. A pattern begins to develop, constellations form, and eventually morph into a giant outline of the ship, Pequod, sailing through the universe. The ship is part of the galaxy and connected to it. It is a part of a larger whole. This strongly suggests an overarching meaning and providence in the universe. It is hard to imagine this point being more effectively presented. It was breathtaking, and almost upstaged the ship on which the curtain rises, though that transition itself was very well handled.

While the opera’s culminating scene of Ahab with Moby Dick was anticlimactic, the death of Ahab was handled with a kind of symmetrical brilliance that directly related to the opening. Ahab diminished into a spot, which was then immediately subsumed back into the graphic projection of the larger stellar universe, with which the overture began: Ahab, who railed against the order of things, turns out to have been part of that order.

There were other unforgettable moments – too many to mention them all, but a few deserve the space: When the cabin boy, Pip, seems to be drowning, soprano Talise Trevigne is suspended by an unseen wire mid stage between the floor and the ceiling, against a back projection of the sea as seen from below. Against this image of being below water, Pip, then makes the desperate motions of attempting to swim to the top. Theatrically, the effect was stunning.

Toward the end of the first act, the scene changes to the deck on which the rendering of the whale oil takes place. As a depiction of hell, I have not seen a more powerful such evocation in any other opera. When the crew embarks on whale hunts, the boats are depicted by projections of their outlines against the steeply raked upstage area. The outlines of the boats move with the action of the waves and, when the boats break apart, the crew members tumble downstage. Finally, in the very last scene, Ishmael, the lone survivor, is floating upon Queequeg’s coffin. His moment of rescue is depicted by the descent of a line at the end of which is a large hook. He steps onto it and is drawn upward. Here is the deus ex machina which, at the very end, suggests that the purpose of the universe may not be malign, after all.

Sometimes, as effective as it was, the overall production left me wondering whether Heggie and his team finally understood the significance of Melville’s message at its deepest level. This was especially so given the overemphasis on the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, which is not so emphatically present in the novel. What are we supposed to see in this relationship? An ideal? If so, against what is it contrasted? I was not surprised when I read that almost no one in this production had read Moby-Dick before undertaking this effort.

Throughout, the singing was superb. Playing Ahab, Jay Hunter Morris was every bit a heroic tenor. His voice never flagged through the extraordinary demands of his role. Baritone Morgan Smith was equally effective and touching as Starbuck. One of the best scenes in the opera had him and Morris sing tenderly together about their reminiscences of Nantucket and the domestic bliss awaiting them there. Stephen Costello was an effective Ishmael and partnered well with Jonathan Lemalu, the Samoan bass baritone from New Zealand, as Queequeg. Soprano Trevigne was a very affecting Pip. The choral work was first rate.

It should be added that Heggie writes particularly well for the voice. One of the finest pieces in the opera was the choral lament for the lost Pip. The quartet with Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg and Ishmael, the latter two up in the rigging, was also impressive. The orchestration was unfailingly attractive, but one wonders how much of this music is truly memorable. Some of it was cinematic; some of it verged on the high-end of the American musical. The production was so theatrically arresting and graphically thrilling that we will have to wait to see how well the music holds up on its own in a recording.

Until then, one can see the opera through Friday, November 2. After that one must await a broadcast by PBS, which is recording this production of Moby-Dick for national telecast.

Final praise to director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Gavan Swift, and especially projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy who deserves some kind of Oscar or Tony for her stunning work. Bernard Herrmann chose to write a cantata on Moby Dick rather than an opera because, he thought, “the medium of opera seems too limited.” This imaginative production proves otherwise. RRR

All pictures above and below courtesy San Francisco Opera, © Cory Weaver.

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