With all due respect to literary scholars and critics over the past couple of centuries, I’ve long suspected that when Mark Twain wrote that “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read,” he must have been thinking about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. I also feel pretty confident that if you asked a random group of folks, even PBS viewers, whether there is anything they would rather do less than re-read Moby-Dick, many of them might reply, “Yes, spend two and a half hours watching an operatic version of Moby-Dick.”
As it turns out, however, in the right hands, Melville’s sprawling novel can make for a whale of a musical-theatrical experience, as evidenced by composer Jake Heggie’s frequently thrilling adaptation premiering tonight on PBS’ Great Performances (check local listings). Taped in conjunction with the opera’s premiere a year ago at the San Francisco Opera, the production is headed by tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who starred as Siegfried in the most recent PBS telecast of Wagner’s Ring cycle, as Ahab, the obsessed captain of the whaler Pequod, who is prepared to risk everything to capture and kill the elusive great white whale of the title.
The Florida-born Heggie, 52, is a hot property in the opera world these days for his well-received previous operatic adaptations of the books and films The End of the Affair and Dead Man Walking. For Moby-Dick, the composer collaborated with Gene Scheer, who faced the near-impossible task of whittling Melville’s occasionally tedious seafaring epic into a taut, backside-friendly libretto. Director Leonard Foglia’s multi-media staging also makes vibrant use of projections to convey the sea churning against the sides of the whaling ship.
Under the baton of SFO’s principal guest conductor Patrick Summers, Heggie’s colorful score reflects the confidence and ingenuity of a contemporary composer who is not afraid of a catchy melody, making free use of sea shanties and nautical dance tunes to depict a sailor’s life at sea. Some critics have pointed out obvious musical parallels to the work of British composer Benjamin Britten, particularly his sea operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but Heggie’s score falls so comfortably on the ear that some of its more muscular passages almost could be lifted directly from one of John Williams’ better film scores.
Since Heggie’s opera takes place entirely at sea, this Moby-Dick is dominated by male voices, apart from a lone female singer, soprano Talise Trevigne, whose charming performance as the cabin boy Pip is a major highlight of the production.
Although the opera is performed in English, PBS wisely provides subtitles, which are especially helpful in non-solo passages. Production values, always a hallmark of performances from the SFO’s home at the historic War Memorial Opera House, are up to the company’s usual high standard.