Heggie's new opera, "Moby Dick" has proven to be an instant American operatic classic. The production, filmed live from the San Francisco Opera features state-of-the-art technology (lighting, projections, etc.) to seamlessly move the opera's scenes deftly and, not infrequently, adding a little "awe" power for the audience. But the show is not about effects, but rather about epic storytelling through music and the effects and stage designs are simply the platform for an overwhelming operatic treatment of one of our great, classic tales.
Heggie's score has moments that recall Britten (strongly) as well as other composers, yet, having heard most of his music to this point, stands on its own with a stamp of recognizable individuality. There were snippets and melodies of things that I "thought" I knew, but were (much like Humperdinck with his Hansel und Gretel) wholly original - yet undeniably familiar. That's a nice gift.
The individual performances are, to a one, exemplary and the commitment each singer gives to his or her role is commendable and clear. Jay Hunter Morris stepped into some big shoes (Ben Heppner was the celebrated original Ahab) and does so admirably. With a more pointed sound and less sweetness of tone than Heppner, Morris presents a different Ahab, but no less formidable and his madness is, at times, appropriately unnerving.
Each of Ahab's crew members are immediately likable, each earning the audiences sympathies, none, so much (for this viewer) as Stephen Costello's Greenhorn. Costello's attractive if tightly wound vibrato imbues Greenhorn with the innocent melancholy of an orphan loner, and his growing attachment to the "savage" Queequeg and the friendship that ensues between the pair of loners is infinitely touching, their duet at the opening of the second act, an emotional and musical highlight. As Queequeg, baritone Jonathan Lemalu is going to be a tough act to follow for anyone replacing him. Of Polynesian island physicality, and elaborately tattooed from the face down, Lemalu's "savage" is noble, and in many ways, the most thoughtful and honest shipmate.
Talise Trevigne's clear, high flying soprano and impish size make her perfect as Pip the cabin boy (and she gets to fly!) Morgan Smith's Starbuck is likewise perfect, his great aria that closes Act 1 revealing his torturous moral dilemma of how to save his shipmates from Ahab the Mad.
Patrick Summers, a Heggie favorite, leads the San Francisco forces with assurance, driving the music furiously in its storm scenes while allowing his singers plenty of room for lyrical expansion - which Heggie gives his characters plenty of.
I was happy to learn that after 5 or 6 productions so far, "Moby Dick" will be playing at even more companies in the upcoming years - a promising sign.