Here's the top take-away from San Francisco Opera's "Moby-Dick": the power of tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab, peg-legged commander of the good ship Pequod, spouting his words like water from the blowhole of a whale. At Wednesday's opening performance, in this adaptation of Herman Melville's epic novel, he sang with a pressurized fury that practically shook the seats of the War Memorial Opera House.
Think Old Testament. Think King Lear. Amazing Morris stepped on stage and announced Ahab's obsession, his will to capture and kill the great white whale: "Infinity! Infinity! We will harvest infinity!"
With music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer, this "Moby-Dick" boasts an ace cast and whiz-bang production values: digital projections that conjure the vast rolling seas; physical sets with mile-high masts and Brooklyn-Bridge grids of rigging. Directed by Leonard Foglia, "Moby" is awesome in a 21st century Broadway kind of way -- though not as awesome as Melville's epic, which is about a different kind of "awesome," the mystery of existence.
Ultimately, this "Moby-Dick" exceeds the grasp of its creators, much like the great white, giving the slip to Captain Ahab.
Yet this high-tech production -- it debuted at Dallas Opera in 2010 and will be taped during its San Francisco run for broadcast on the PBS "Great Performances" series -- has much going for it: not only Morris/Ahab and the rest of the Pequod's crew, but portions of Heggie's ambitious score, which rolls through two hours and 25 minutes of whale hunts, behemoth storms, fist fights and moral debates. At his best, the composer floats gladdening melodies and generates complex and thrusting momentum, matching the potent word flow of the libretto, much of it drawn by Scheer from Melville's 800-page "Moby-Dick."
Honed to 60 pages, the libretto brims with poetry and erudition, setting hurdles for Heggie. He can turn the most unlikely verse -- i.e. "Human madness is a cunning and most feline thing" -- into a lament carrying more than a hint of Puccini in its melody, orchestral color and unbridled emotion. That aria is rapturously sung by tenor Stephen Costello, in the role of Greenhorn the newbie seaman. (Through his many trials, he evolves into the spitting image of Melville's able Ishmael.)
Other musical highlights include the sea-shanty infectiousness of several numbers for the chorus/crew, as well as a string of impressive duets in Act I. One sets a tender conversation between Greenhorn and Starbuck, the principled first mate, who becomes lost in a reverie, recalling his wife Mary and young son back in Nantucket. Baritone Morgan Smith, as Starbuck, has a strapping voice, sturdy as a mahogany beam, but here he sings with lovely, cooing sweetness.
Oh, and here's another highlight, literally: the aerial aria sung by soprano Talise Trevigne, in the role of Pip, the cabin boy.
It happens later in Act I, when Pip is thrown overboard: We see Trevigne, floating high above the stage, set against a digital ocean backdrop. Hanging from a wire, she is swimming/flying, weightless as an astronaut in space, yet fighting for life -- and going mad. And singing all the while: Trevigne's voice is pearly, lustrous and exactingly controlled, yet it also feels untethered, free. Long known to South Bay audiences -- she sang with Opera San Jose in the 2006-07 season -- this charismatic performer has arrived on the national stage and is making her San Francisco Opera debut.
So where does "Moby" fail to reach its mark? Despite these high points, Heggie's score often feels like a synthesis of influences: there's pulsing Philip Glass, with his minor-key arpeggios; there's the rhythmically reiterative speech-song of John Adams; the "Sweeney Todd" chord progressions of Stephen Sondheim; plus bits of Bernstein and dabs of Debussy (and Disney, too). One longs to hear a unique compositional voice: "Somewhere in the Heart of the Sea," Heggie's most lilting and lovely song, sounds an awful lot like "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now." And Act II bogs down in a grim grayness, as the composer keeps shuffling musical moves and Scheer puts a bowtie on too many plot twists. (He could pare that libretto to 50 pages.)
It's a well-oiled production, the fourth since its debut in Dallas, where four of the principals created their roles: Costello, Smith, Trevigne and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, as the seaman Queequeg, an eloquent singer who didn't project at War Memorial. Smartly conducted by Patrick Summers, the orchestra tamed the challenging score. Abetted by Robert Brill's inventive sets, Gavan Swift's impressionistic lighting and Elaine J. McCarthy's virtual-reality projections, this is a cool and at times effecting production.
But in the end, it's missing the myth. I'm afraid you'd need a Mahler or a Kubrick to catch Melville's whale.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
San Francisco Opera
Presenting "Moby-Dick" by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer
Through: Nov. 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $22 to $340, 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com