Tuesday, July 29, 2014         


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Video raises opera tale of 'Moby-Dick'

By Joshua Kosman

San Francisco Chronicle


PBS Jay Hunter Morris stars as Ahab in the San Francisco Opera's production of "Moby-Dick."

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 happily coming to us.

9 p.m.today, PBS

Anyone who missed the San Francisco Opera's superb 2012 production of the opera — or who heard it and is eager to relive the experience — will be glad to learn that the piece has been captured in live performance, and is now available for home screening. The recording is being released by the company on DVD and Blu-ray, and airs today on PBS 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.

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

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.

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 Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" did. And perhaps nothing can quite substitute for a live performance of the work. But this video version certainly comes close.

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