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Designing Moby-Dick

October 24, 2012

When Orson Welles adapted Herman Melville's Moby Dick for the stage in 1955, Kenneth Tynan famously wrote: "It is absurd to expect Orson Welles to attempt anything less than the impossible. It is all that is left to him. Mere possible things, like Proust or War and Peace, would confine him. He must choose Moby-Dick, a book whose setting is the open sea...and whose villain is the supremely unstageable whale."

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer have created an adaptation of the famously unwieldy novel for the opera stage that is is amazingly sea-worthy and water-tight. The current run at the San Francisco Opera made for one of the most engrossing evenings of opera I've experienced in recent years.

Heggie has a brilliant way with melody (though some of the arias and orchestrations are so lushly Romantic that they made me feel slightly sea sick.) Scheer's libretto feels salty without being too drenched in old sea dog repartee. And the cast, headed by tenor Jay Hunter Morris as a wizened and peg-legged Captain Ahab, provide physically and sonically arresting performances. This helps to mitigate the bottom-heavy feel of the singing. There is only one female role in the work -- Pip the cabin boy -- flightily sung in this instance by soprano Talise Trevigne.

One of the most intoxicating parts of the experience is the production design. San Francisco Opera's use of video is often pretty disappointing. The airplane that swooped in across a screen at the start of the recent production of Nixon in China was impressive, but the conceit didn't go anywhere. It wasn't integrated into the rest of the production design. Conversely, the churning water/cloud projection motif from the Ring Cycle was over-used to the point of making me want to strangle the Rhine Maidens.

In Moby-Dick, projection designer Elaine McCarthy and set designer Robert Brill collaborate to integrate their artistry in an immersive way. At the start of the opera, a video projection of a starry night sky gradually morphs into a beautiful line-drawn rendering of an enormous whaling ship, which looks extremely real, as minimalistic as it is. And then the ship appears to keel as the curtain opens at an angle and there we suddenly are, smack bang aboard the deck of the Peaquod with a massive cast of sailors busying about.

The transition between video and set is not only seamless but is used to great effect at several points during the production. It is particularly powerful in the scene where the Peaquod's crew sets out in small fishing boats, created using a combination of the video projected line drawings and the vertiginously steep rake of the physical set (see picture above).

The relationship between the fragility of the video montage and the solidity of the stage set physically suggests the dissonance between the reality of life on the high seas and the more ephemeral demons in Captain Ahab's head. It's quite a brilliant piece of design thinking and execution.

I hope that opera companies will create more productions that bring together video and set in such an intelligent way.


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