Opera review: Jake Heggie’s ‘Moby-Dick’ at San Diego Opera


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When it comes to adapting great literature, opera has mostly lost the knack for magnificent triviality. We’ve become conservators on guard against one art form shamelessly overtaking another. We police loopy and irrelevant invention. Composers once freed from reverence are now easily cowed.

I had my hopes that Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” which is currently enjoying its Southern California premiere at San Diego Opera, might be a modern exception. What a rapturous reception this opera has already received. At its Dallas Opera premiere two years ago, critics hailed it a triumph.


The production dazzled. Tenor Ben Heppner’s was said to have brilliantly inhabited Ahab. If the music was a tad derivative, few seemed to mind since it served the singers and the drama. The Dallas audience at the premiere reportedly burst into spontaneous applause three times during the first act. A couple in front of me at San Diego Civic Theatre Tuesday night had returned to see “Moby-Dick” after having been thrilled on its Saturday opening. They were also eager to hear Jay Hunter Morris, who has now replaced an indisposed Heppner for the rest of the run.

Here, then, is a minority report.

Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Brill, costume designer Jane Greenwood and the projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy (who is responsible for much of the visual razzle-dazzle) take no chances. They show Melville’s novel no disrespect, at least not on the surface. Scheer’s libretto skillfully fashions familiar plot elements and focuses in on the relationships between key characters. He develops psychological motivations that contemporary audiences might readily recognize. The most interesting is that between a sensible Starbuck and an irrational Ahab, who in this opera seems less a fantastically whale-obsessed captain than simply a guy who missed his meds for a day.

Heggie is a composer who specializes in, and is admired for, vocal writing. Many star singers turn to him because he knows how to accommodate. He also accommodates the audience with musical styles readily recognized and an idiom determinedly tonal. A simple, tuneful chordal motive floats through the orchestra all night long, sort of branding the music as Heggie’s.

Debussy helped out with impressions of the sea. Barber could be turned to for a neo-Romantic lushness. Minimalist formulas passed the time during transitions and set changes. John Williams proved invaluable inspiration when it came to accompanying the projections. A friend pointed out a more obscure reference to Stravinsky’s “The Flood,” when the ocean roiled.

The opera takes place entirely on ship. Ishmael is called Greenhorn. Plot-driven incident follows incident, with requisite reflection in arias. There is no place, however, for Melville’s worldview, his rampant sentence structure, his invention with language or his fascination with the white whale, all of which messy opera is equipped to mess with. Scheer’s language is our language.

The whale has no song. There is, in fact, no whale, just a projection in which the eye of the storm is the eye of the great beast.


The opera begins like a movie, with animated graphic projections of the ship coming into being and anticipatory orchestral syrup underneath. The scene is set, the audience hooked. A curved backdrop and abstract rigging allow for effective special effects.

The cast is strong. Morris, who was Ahab in the opera’s Australian premiere, did not have the crazed wildness that Heppner was said to display. But the tenor’s focused singing implied that he was suppressing scary excesses, which was impressive but unoriginal. This was a little too close to Britten’s “Billy Budd” for comfort, if a little too comfortable than the more astringent model.

Jonathan Lemalu brought a smooth exoticism to Queequeg. Morgan Smith was a strong, standout Starbuck, torn between duty and reason. Robert Orth’s Stubb conveyed needed crustiness in a sea of pretty music. The single woman in the cast, Talise Trevigne, in the pants role of the boy Pip, was a charmer, maybe too much so, since she charmed even when suspended dead. Joseph Mechavich, who is replacing an indisposed Karen Keltner, conducted with enthusiasm and the San Diego Symphony played with color in the pit.

Heggie’s pleasantly entertaining opera, which continues moves on to San Francisco Opera next season, goes down. That’s its problem. Nothing about the world — or Melville — seems any different when it is over. In that sense it is not true to “Moby-Dick” at all.


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-- Mark Swed, reporting from San Diego

‘Moby-Dick,’ Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave., San Diego; 8 p.m. Friday and Wednesday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $50-$220; (619) 232-7636 or Running time: 4 hours.