Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
February 24, 2012
A water theme courses through two current productions. “Moby-Dick,” the world premiere opera, is stunningly set completely at sea. The comic drama “In the Wake” contemplates what’s left behind in a life’s journey. Narcissism guides the central character in both works – a relentless determination to meet one’s own needs, and a flagrant disregard for the potential effect on others.
Ahab, the captain of the whaling ship Pequod in Melville’s brilliant, sprawling, 1851 epic, is a monomaniac, hellbent on revenge against the great white whale that took his leg. In the opera, a co-production of five companies including San Diego Opera, composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have zeroed in on the onboard relationships – primarily between the godless Ahab and his devout Christian first mate, Starbuck; and between Greenhorn, the adrift narrator of the book, and Queequeg , the tattooed Polynesian harpooner.
Ahab has to steer this ship – and without a forceful captain at the helm, you’re sunk. Although he’s been widely acclaimed since he originated the role in Dallas in 2010, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner has been plagued with recurring vocal problems over the past decade. On opening night, his singing was ragged, frequently overpowered by the orchestra; his voice actually cracked several times. He showed a limited emotional range as well. Ahab’s few moments of humanity – in a beautiful duet with Morgan Smith’s stalwart Starbuck — were more potent than his legendary rage against God and the whale. There’s a new Ahab on deck now: Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the role in Australia last summer.
Also a last-minute replacement is conductor Joseph Mechavich , under whose baton the lush, cinematic orchestral work rises to the heights of the marvelous source material. The chorus is outstanding – and impressively agile, scrambling around the jaw-dropping set designed by former San Diegan Robert Brill, gorgeously enhanced by Donald Holder’s magnificent lighting and Elaine McCarthy’s amazingly three-dimensional projections. Overall, the voices aren’t powerful enough, the acting not compelling enough. But the look and the story are completely irresistible.
Sailing on from the timeless to the topical… there’s a raging storm inside playwright Lisa Kron . She’s still fuming about the George W. Bush years. And in her 2010 play, “In the Wake,” she feels compelled to tell – and show – everything that’s infuriating her. And I mean everything. She writes witty, snappy dialogue, and creates some interesting characters and relationships. But the play is bloated, not sure if it wants to be about politics or people. The boatload of political disquisitions is redundantly underscored by video news-clips, but the shades of perspective are insightful. Not much subtlety here, though director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg teases excellent performances from a stellar cast. The play, like its central character, has delusions of grandeur. They’re both less significant than they think.
In opera, drama or literature, sometimes egotists can be captivating. Sometimes, not.
The San Diego Opera’s “Moby-Dick” runs through February 26 at the Civic Theatre downtown.
“In the Wake” continues through March 4 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
©2012 PAT LAUNER