‘Moby’ proves it’s not a fluke

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - By Joshua Kos­man

When we last en­coun­tered “Moby-Dick” in op­er­atic form, this mag­num opus from com­poser Jake Heg­gie and li­bret­tist Gene Scheer was em­bod­ied in the San Fran­cisco Opera’s sweep­ing, ma­jes­tic 2012 pro­duc­tion. It was, among other things, a tour de force of stage­craft and vis­ual de­sign, which some­how man­aged to evoke the great wa­tery vis­tas of Melville’s novel.

So when “Moby-Dick” was an­nounced as part of the cur­rent sea­son by Opera San José one of the first ques­tions was whether the magic of that epic reach could be repli­cated on a more mod­est scale.

The an­swer, re­vealed dur­ing the pre­dom­i­nantly suc­cess­ful open­ing-night per­for­mance on Satur­day, Feb. 9, at the Cal­i­for­nia The­atre, was that it ab­so­lutely can — and in ways that re­veal a lot about the great­ness of this re­source­ful and beau­ti­ful work.

“Moby-Dick,” as recon­ceived with imag­i­na­tive fidelity by Heg­gie and Scheer, is still a mighty sea story, un­der­pinned by a sense of the bore­dom and

dan­ger of the whale hunt. But at its heart it re­mains a highly per­sonal and in­ti­mate drama — about love and friend­ship, moral­ity and duty, and the ter­ri­fy­ing mono­ma­nia of one man, the fierce Cap­tain Ahab, pos­sessed by demons not even he can un­der­stand.

That drama re­quires no more than a hand­ful of canny artists ready to de­liver Heg­gie’s splen­did score with the sen­si­tiv­ity and vigor it de­mands. Whether the piece is made to in­habit the­atri­cal spa­ces large or small, its es­sen­tial ten­der­ness and hu­man­ity shine through.

For this pro­duc­tion, di­rec­tor Kris­tine McIntyre and set de­signer Erhard Rom have cre­ated a world in which the close quar­ters of the Pe­quod reg­is­ter with al­most claus­tro­pho­bic in­ti­macy. The whal­ing ship con­sists of one deck and a sin­gle mast, with a base that can swivel to im­per­son­ate one of the small, frag­ile boats in which the men cast off to hunt their prey. A pair of match­ing maps — stars above, the world be­low — serves as a back­drop, which is just enough to con­vey the huge­ness of the set­ting.

Yet within that enor­mous world there are per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions play­ing out, which is what the San Jose pro­duc­tion — led with ten­der­ness and power by the com­pany’s mu­sic di­rec­tor and prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor, Joseph March­eso — gets mem­o­rably right.

Much of it sur­rounds the per­cep­tions of Green­horn, the young, first­time whaler who will sur­vive the fi­nal ship­wreck to tell the story un­der the newly adopted nom de guerre Ish­mael. As em­bod­ied with enor­mous vo­cal clar­ity, grace and vul­ner­a­bil­ity by tenor Noah Ste­wart, Green­horn serves as a per­fect ve­hi­cle for our own in­tro­duc­tion to life aboard the Pe­quod.

On Satur­day, the other el­e­ments in this won­drously var­ied col­lec­tion of sea dogs mostly took their places with equal vi­tal­ity. The Poly­ne­sian har­pooner Quee­queg, with whom Green­horn shares an exquisitely turned love duet to be­gin Act 2, was nobly sung by bass-bari­tone Ashraf Se­wailam, and bari­tone Justin Ryan, though not al­ways fas­tid­i­ous in mat­ters of pitch, cut a com­mand­ing fig­ure as the first mate, Star­buck, who of­ten serves as Ahab’s moral coun­ter­bal­ance.

The cabin-boy Pip, whose as­sign­ment to a so­prano pro­vides the only ex­cep­tion to the opera’s all-male cast, got a mag­nif­i­cent per­for­mance from Jas­mine Haber­sham, singing with plenty of tonal heft and an air of tragic vi­vac­ity. Tenor Ma­son Gates and bari­tone Eu­gene Bran­cov­eanu both pro­vided buoy­ant pres­ences as the mates Flask and Stubb, bari­tone Trevor Neal sang res­o­nantly from the rear bal­cony as the for­lorn Cap­tain Gar­diner of the neigh­bor­ing whaler the Rachel, and the men’s cho­rus — a cen­tral el­e­ment of the score — made a rol­lick­ing, tonally valiant con­tri­bu­tion.

At the cen­ter of things, un­for­tu­nately, was tenor Richard Cox, whose per­for­mance as Ahab was nei­ther mu­si­cally strong nor the­atri­cally alert enough to shoul­der the weight placed upon it. Now and then — es­pe­cially in the touch­ing Act 2 duet dur­ing which he and Star­buck rem­i­nisce about their fam­i­lies wait­ing for them at home in Nan­tucket — Cox rose to the oc­ca­sion with singing of ex­pres­sive depth.

But for the most part, he strug­gled to un­leash the role’s vo­cal lines with the heroic for­ti­tude they re­quired. And time and again, his dra­mat­i­cally ten­ta­tive per­for­mance failed to cre­ate a sense of Ahab’s un­bri­dled fury, or make him the mer­cu­rial, abu­sive fig­ure around whom the ship’s en­tire life re­volves.

Yet even with­out a strong cen­ter, “MobyDick” stood, re­vealed yet again as a the­atri­cal work of enor­mous in­ven­tive­ness, sub­tlety and in­sight — by my reck­on­ing, Heg­gie’s most tri­umphant cre­ation since his maiden opera, “Dead Man Walk­ing.” Like that ear­lier opera, “Moby-Dick” seems to be well on its way to be­com­ing a reper­tory sta­ple, and pro­duc­tions like the one at Opera San José re­veal why.

Pat Kirk

Richard Cox plays the fierce Cap­tain Ahab in “Moby-Dick” at Opera San José.

Pat Kirk

Richard Cox (cen­ter) plays Ahab in Jake Heg­gie and Gene Scheer’s “MobyDick” at Opera San José.

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