Though reports of the work’s importance and dramatic power have attended it since its 2010 premiere in Dallas, I doubt many in the audience of the War Memorial Opera House on Wednesday night were prepared for the impact of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. After nearly three hours of gripping drama and emotionally resonant musical storytelling, the tale of the crew of the Pequod and their pursuit of the white whale concluded in a deathly quiet, the audience sitting in stunned silence. The thunderous applause that followed was effusive and cathartic – what a journey! The nearly all-male cast acknowledged the adulation collectively and as individuals, one performer towering above the rest, but it was the composer, Bay Area native and one-time San Francisco Opera staffer Jake Heggie, who received the greatest plaudits. Deservedly so; together with his librettist, Gene Scheer, Heggie has created in Moby-Dick a thrilling theatrical experience and a convincing argument for opera’s ongoing vitality.

Moby Dick: Morgan Smith and the crew of the Pequod © Cory Weaver
Moby Dick: Morgan Smith and the crew of the Pequod
© Cory Weaver

There is a trend among contemporary opera composers to craft operatic adaptations of literary classics. While Moby-Dick undoubtedly is a “novel opera”, it stands out as a singularly effective representative of this genre because of its composer’s unapologetic identity as a melodist who puts expressive musical line front and center. Heggie’s writing for the voice is more than intoned, plot-moving text from a familiar story; his writing for the sailors exhibited beautiful song-like lines, many of which remained in my musical RAM long after the performance.

Herman Melville’s massive opus hardly seems an obvious choice for an opera. The loose and baggy monster of a novel has vast digressions, usually dealing with the history of whaling or whale biology, yet somehow the author sustains our interest through diverse narrative strains that have little to do with Ahab or his ruinous obsession. It is not at all obvious where an opera composer should begin with such a work, awash as it is with minutiae and whose human lives, though vividly defined and real, appear puny against the scope of a dispassionate universe. Searching for meaning, not to mention music, aboard the Pequod, Heggie and his librettist Gene Sheer found their inspiration in the relationships among the ship’s crew and the fascinating men who lead them, two groups who are literally and metaphorically adrift. At first, Ahab seems an unlikely captain. Why would anyone follow someone so clearly blinded by a personal vendetta? His first mate, Starbuck, refers to the captain’s preoccupation with Moby Dick as blasphemous, recognizing that Ahab’s anger is with God as much as with a particular white whale. But Ahab is a man of dark charisma and terrible passion, and his men follow him on his hopeless quest. The Captain is both larger than life and a believable, flawed man with impeccable sailing credentials and a family, such as it is, back in Nantucket.

Heggie conceived Ahab as a heldentenor role and it can be added to the “Siegfried category”, in that (as is often said about the part of Siegfried) there are only ever few singers in the world who can meet the role’s demands. Heroic tenor Jay Hunter Morris currently occupies – no, dominates – this rare company of tenors, and his performance of Ahab was magnificent.

Who does not know Jay Hunter Morris by now? From a modest singing career, the tenor from Paris, Texas, emerged as a superstar last year. Beginning with his local triumph in the title role of San Francisco Opera’s new production of Siegfried, Morris then stepped into the Metropolitan Opera’s mega-budget Siegfried on short notice where his triumph was seen around the world live in HD. From Siegfried, it is not too far a stretch to Ahab, as the latter is also punishingly high and demands stamina and total commitment. Morris communicated the captain’s descent into madness with terrifying dramatic and vocal intensity. As Morris has emerged as the Siegfried of our day, his Ahab is another portrayal that must be seen to be believed.

The rest of the cast was mostly outstanding, with many of the singers having played these parts in Moby-Dick performances elsewhere. Morgan Smith was superb as Starbuck, a hero to Morris’ anti-hero. Tenor Stephen Costello sang the role of Greenhorn – the Ishmael of the novel – with sympathetic tone and an attention to the character’s journey from innocence to experience. Jonathan Lemalu was good as Queequeg, though he was difficult to hear above the orchestra at times. Soprano Talise Trevigne, the only female member of the cast, was effective as a pitifully deranged Pip. Patrick Summers led the orchestra through turbulent storms of sound and delicately bare accompaniments with the conviction of a true believer in the piece.

It is hard to imagine a more suitable or efficient staging for this opera than Leonard Foglia’s remarkable production. Seen in all four of the opera’s stops before its opening here is San Francisco, Foglia’s vision for the piece seems indelible and, like Peter Sellars’ Nixon in China production, it might take several decades before we see Moby-Dick staged in some other way. Robert Brill’s set is dominated by a swooping white wall which conveys scenes – both on deck and at sea – vividly, without the need for lengthy set-changes. The creative use of lighting and projections, by Gavan Swift and Elaine J. McCarthy respectively, were evocative and lent the drama cinematic grandeur. Jane Greenwood’s period costumes were appropriate and, in the case of Ahab’s peg leg, brought realistic touches to the overall presentation. The only miscalculation at Wednesday’s premiere was the conductor’s too-pregnant pause before the final line of the opera. Bringing the orchestra to a complete halt and delaying Greenhorn’s closing/opening statement about who he is (you know the line) seemed gimmicky and inauthentic. Heggie and Scheer’s ending is, in fact, a masterstroke, but the moment belongs within the context of the rest of the opera, not set aside and pointed out so obviously.