JAKE HEGGIE: Moby Dick (complete opera), Blu-ray
Performers: Jay Hunter Morris (Captain Ahab)/Stephen Costello (Greenhorn)/Morgan Smith (Starbuck)/Jonathan Lemalu (Queequeg)/Talise Trevigne (Pip)/ San Francisco Orch. and Chorus/ Patrick Summers
Executive Producer: David Glockley
Studio: EuroArts 2059654 (10/29/13) [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080i HD color
Audio: English DD 5.1, DTS-HD MA 5.1, PCM stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French
Length: 142 minutes + 51 minutes extras
Jake Heggie is already known as a highly talented composer with an absolute gift for lyricism and a keen awareness of the capabilities of the human voice. He has also established himself as someone who, with the help of his outstanding librettist; Gene Scheer, is particularly gifted at adapting literature to opera. Although their styles are different, I think of Heggie’s work as highly as do that of the similarly focused Tobias Picker. I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in California and wish I had had the opportunity to see his End of the Affair (after Graham Greene). I find Heggie’s work strongly emotional, overtly and lyrically dramatic and very impressive. For me, Moby Dick may be his best theatre work yet.
I still remember being moved, even a little scared, at the old black and white movie version of this classic tale, with Gregory Peck being dragged under water by the white whale at the film’s end. Heggie’s treatment also captures the feel of Melville’s dark allegory on obsession and class structure with not-too-subtle religious undertones. In particular, Scheer’s Captain Ahab is a dictatorial and punishing leader with only his beliefs and his sense of mission at hand. However, the fantastic performance by Jay Hunter Morris also lends an element of believability. This is a character who is clearly troubled and could be seen as a figure not distantly removed from several twentieth-century charismatic fanatics whose cults have ended in tragedy.
Like other scores produced by Jake Heggie, the tonal language is completely approachable, his orchestrations are lush but not “gimmicky” and emotional impact is what this score, like all good theatre scores, is all about. It is a very impressive work.
I also enjoyed the work of video director Frank Zamacona, who heightens the mood with tight close-ups for the more emotionally charged moments and then pulling back to capture the piece’s broad vistas of sea and shipboard. There are even a few video shots of water and waves that help to establish both the realistic setting as well as a sense of aloneness, removed from help.
The cast is uniformly great; notably tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (later known as “Ishmael”, as in the novel’s famous opening narration: “Call me Ishmael”), baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck, and bass Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg. In fact, I had never heard Lemalu before but, being a New Zealand-born Samoan, his inclusion in the cast is also a realistic touch for which I was grateful.
I have made it a point to get to know many new American operas over the years and I must put this one on a short list of the works written over the past twenty years that, to me, is an instant classic. Incidentally, high praise goes to director David Glockley and all those with the company for their notable commitment to new American opera. Among the many amazing works that have come from their stage are Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier, Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne and the present Moby Dick.
Seeing and hearing this new work is a pleasure and the production values in this new Blu-ray release are very good. Highly recommended!