Music News & Reviews

San Francisco Opera's 'Moby-Dick' makes a successful leap to video

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris plays Captain Ahab in the 2012 San Francisco Opera production of Jack  Heggie's Moby-Dick. A video of a live performance airs Friday on Great Performances on KET.
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris plays Captain Ahab in the 2012 San Francisco Opera production of Jack Heggie's Moby-Dick. A video of a live performance airs Friday on Great Performances on KET.

The next theatrical mounting of Jake Heggie's operatic masterpiece Moby-Dick is scheduled for February at the Washington National Opera. But for those who can't get there, Moby-Dick is coming to us.

Anyone who heard about (or saw) the San Francisco Opera's superb 2012 production will be glad to learn that the piece has been captured in live performance and is available for home screening.

The recording was released Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray, and airs Friday on PBS stations, including KET, as part of the Great Performances series.

It's a big success on every level. The opera itself, with an ingenious and tender libretto by Gene Scheer, is Heggie's finest achievement to date, transforming Melville's towering novel into a musical version that is true to the spirit of its source while forging a distinctive theatrical path.

The San Francisco production, dexterously staged by director Leonard Foglia and peopled with a first-rate cast under the leadership of conductor Patrick Summers, gave the piece everything it needed to succeed.

But that was no guarantee that the performance was going to play as effectively on the small screen as it did in War Memorial Opera House. The fact that it does — the video version captures the original experience in all its theatrical intensity while adding a layer of expressive intimacy — is just more cause for celebration.

Video director Frank Zamacona adopts a varied camera strategy, moving into tight close-ups for the more emotionally freighted moments and then pulling back to capture the piece's broad vistas of sea and shipboard.

There are occasional video snippets of water and waves — both storming and at peace — to establish the setting, and a few helpful titles to mark the passage of time between scenes, but otherwise this is a faithful rendering of the original performance. Some of the most memorable theatrical strokes — particularly the projections that create an illusion of the Pequod's small boats — work just as well here as they ever did.

By keeping the cameras just within the boundaries of the proscenium, Zamacona maintains a cinematic level of illusion; the effect is vivid but never stagy. (Until the final curtain calls, in fact, the only hint that an audience is present comes when Queequeg's mention of the mood-altering power of his pipe elicits a laugh.)

Perhaps the main beneficiary of the camera is tenor Jay Hunter Morris, whose performance as Ahab boasts a manic intensity that wasn't always apparent in the theater. The rest of the cast — including tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (later Ishmael), baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck and bass Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg — perform as admirably as they ever did.

With its infectious melodic beauty and unerring formal command, Moby-Dick seems bound to become an operatic repertory staple even more quickly than did Heggie's Dead Man Walking.

Perhaps nothing can quite substitute for a live performance of the work — but this video version comes close.


TV REVIEW

'Great Performances: Moby-Dick'

10 p.m. Nov. 1 on KET

Online:Pbs.org/wnet/gperf

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