Oct. 30--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.
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 Friday night 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.
And 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 the War Memorial Opera House. The fact that it does -- 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.
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.
And 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 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.
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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