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Jake HEGGIE (b.1961)
Moby-Dick (2010) [142.00]
Jay Hunter Morris (tenor) - Captain Ahab; Stephen Costello (tenor) - Greenhorn; Morgan Smith (baritone) - Starbuck; Jonathan Lemalu (baritone) - Queequeg; Talise Trevigne (soprano) - Pip; Robert Orth (baritone) - Stubb; Matthew O’Neill (tenor) - Flask; Joo Won Kang (baritone) - Captain Gardner; Carmichael Blankenship (baritone) - Tashtego; Bradley Kynard (baritone) - Daggon; Chester Pidduck (tenor) - Nantucket sailor; Anders Froehlich (baritone) - Spanish sailor
San Francisco Opera/Patrick Summers
rec. San Francisco Opera, October 2012
Extras: interviews, time-lapse [51.00]
Picture: 16:9, 1080i Full HD
Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French
Booklet notes: English, German, French
EUROARTS 2059654 [193.00] 

The trawl by American operatic composers in search of subject matter through the serried ranks of the great American novel proceeds further with this opera on the subject of Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie. Actually it would seem surprising that this novel by Hermann Melville has not been attempted before, and one would suspect that it was only the sheer difficulties of staging the technically complex drama that have stood in the way. As it is the novel has already inspired two major musical works in the form of Philip Sainton’s marvellous score for the 1956 film by John Huston, and Bernard Herrmann’s 1967 cantata for tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra - both of which have at various times been available on disc. Heggie himself confesses in his booklet note with this release that he had severe reservations about the undertaking of composing an opera on the subject, and the difficulties he had in coming to grips with the material. In the event the result is a resounding success.
 
Melville’s novel is a rather odd work, combining as it does a closely observed psychological portrait of obsessive madness with factual commentaries concerning the wholly repulsive business of nineteenth century whaling and often inaccurate details of natural history. Most modern readers will tend to skip over the chapters in the latter category, concentrating on the story itself - as indeed does the libretto here adapted by Gene Scheer. Parallels with Britten’s Billy Budd, also based on a story by Melville, are inevitable: the wholly male cast - (with the exception of a single boy, here taken by a soprano), the shipboard setting and indeed elements in Heggie’s musical language itself, including a monologue for Ahab which echoes Claggart’s soliloquy in Britten. Ahab’s monologue revolves appropriately around an obsessive statement of a theme rising and falling through a minor third. It reminds me obstinately of an identical passage at the beginning of the final scene in Massenet’s Thaïs - not quite the sort of accidental coincidence which helps credibility. However the motif is imaginatively developed thereafter, descending into the bass to register the whale and acquiring a patina of tuned percussion eerily like Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica when the ship is struck by St Elmo’s Fire.
 
The opera opens not, as one would expect, with Melville’s famous opening line “Call me Ishmael” - this is reserved for the very end of the work - but with an orchestral prelude which is positively romantic in its sweep. Indeed with richer violin tone it could almost be mistaken for a Hollywood film score - not an observation intended to be other than complimentary. As the curtain rises we see Queequeg chanting in Polynesian, and the action soon gathers pace with some very exciting choral writing leading to the appearance of Ahab. The latter is somewhat unexpectedly a heroic tenor; Bernard Herrmann used a baritone. The impression of a deranged Captain Vere is not altogether inappropriate and the casting yields some exciting opportunities for climaxes. Melville’s novel, like the voyage itself, is not over-packed with incident, but Heggie seizes all the opportunities that are afforded him. He also supplies us with a series of what one might well term arias and duets in which the characters express their thoughts and emotions, often rising to passionate emotional heights. After the boy Pip is nearly drowned, the lament of the sailors is taken up and developed in an extended ostinato founded on the theme which culminates at the end of Act One in an aria for Starbuck. There the lament is raised to positively Puccinian richness.
 
When the same theme returns immediately at the beginning of Act Two, one fears that the opera may begin to turn into one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals where one tune is worked comprehensively to death; possibly a slightly longer pause between the Acts might have helped. We soon find the mood changing into another in the series of sea shanties with which the score is peppered - shades of Billy Budd again - and then a very beautiful chain of arias which culminate in a duet for Ahab and Starbuck oddly entitled ‘The Symphony’. Here the mate nearly convinces his captain to give up the fruitless chase. An absolutely glorious melody surges in the orchestra to describe the homesickness and longing for comfort that both characters feel. The staging in sets by Robert Brill succeeds excellently in conjuring up the atmosphere of the ship and the sea. There’s a particularly spectacular series of images as Moby Dick turns on his pursuers and sinks their boats. Ahab is left centre-stage to sing his curse on the whale. He is then overwhelmed by a series of projected film images designed by Elaine McCarthy which have recurred throughout the action. Then we are left with Greenhorn afloat on the empty sea, responding to questions and leading to his haunting declamation of the line “Call me Ishmael” to a theme which one no longer thinks of as being Thaïs. 

When reviewing Heggie’s earlier Dead man walking last year I complained about the lack of catharsis in the final scene, which seemed to me to end too abruptly. Here there can be no such possible complaint, with the theme of the lament from the end of Act One floating over the texture of the sea music like a wistful benediction. Absolutely beautiful.
 
The opera was first given in Dallas in 2010, but the production was then taken on tour to the other houses who had joined in its commission: the State Opera of South Australia, Calgary, San Diego and finally San Francisco where this film was made. One cannot imagine the production by Leonard Foglia being bettered, but one would very much like to see it travel further afield - even if this video recording is some compensation if it doesn’t. By the time the opera reached San Francisco most of the cast were already thoroughly familiar with the work. This shows in their commitment to the drama and the perfection of their rendition of the music. Jay Hunter Morris on the other hand had not appeared in the original production, but you would never tell from the conviction of his portrayal of Ahab. He looks properly demented most of the time and only occasionally relaxes into a more contemplative mood. He has a particularly hard time with Heggie’s often very loud orchestration - one wonders how much would come through in the theatre - but his voice rings out loud and clear with thrilling top notes. Stephen Costello as the contrasting tenor Greenhorn, more lyrical in tone, phrases his music with great skill and much beauty in his floated high notes. His delivery of his aria Human madness is a cunning and most feline thing is a marvellous moment, as is his final scene. The lion’s share of the lyrical music however goes to Morgan Smith as Starbuck, rapt in his ‘symphony’ duet with Ahab. He produces a wealth of Verdian tone at the end of Act One when he contemplates killing the captain.Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg is characterful, and seizes his chance for lyricism too in the duet which opens Act Two. Talis Trevigne, forced to play the boy Pip - a somewhat annoying character - as he descends into madness, is nevertheless touching. The rest of the crew are superbly taken by various soloists and the magnificently masculine San Francisco chorus.
 
There is however one problem with all this magnificently honed singing, and that is the matter of diction. I don’t know why modern operatic singers who manage perfectly well in Italian, German or French seem to go to pieces when confronted with the English language. Most of the principals here, while producing wonderfully turned musical phrases, distort their vowels to an extent that makes the words they are actually singing almost incomprehensible. Costello is the prime offender but from the only one. It cannot be the manner in which Heggie sets the text. Sometimes admittedly distortion of the vowels is inevitable on high notes, but for much of the time his writing leaves the voices in their middle register. The mangling of the English extends well beyond the enunciation of vowels to more easily rectified faults such as swallowed consonants. Possibly singers nowadays, with surtitles usually available in live performances, don’t feel the need to project in the sometimes artificial way that their predecessors did. That said, one need only listen to English National Opera recordings from thirty years ago - such as the Goodall Ring - to hear how much more of the words the singers there managed to get across even heavy Wagnerian orchestration. The fact that one can hear performances today on the stage, both in opera and the musical theatre, where nearly every word is clear, shows that the problems of singing in English are not insuperable. There are times here when one almost gets the feeling that the performers don’t speak the language at all and that is clearly wrong.
 
Having said all that, once one turns the subtitles on, everything becomes crystal clear and one can simply enjoy these performances of some magnificent music. Other reviewers have hailed Moby-Dick as Heggie’s best opera to date. While I have not heard all his other works I am quite prepared to believe it. It is a real delight to find a modern opera composer who relishes real melodic lines. One might even have wished - as I have suggested above - a more romantic tone from the violins to bring out the full emotion of the yearning Puccinian phrases that recur throughout. The whole work is beautifully judged, and thoroughly deserves this video recording.  
 
Subtitles are supplied not only in English, but also in French and German. The booklet contains a synopsis and an essay by Heggie himself. The Blu-Ray comes with extras: interviews with the cast, conductor, composer and producer, and also a time-lapse film showing ‘24 hours on stage in 8 minutes’.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey


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