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Two outstanding contemporary American works
beckon intrepid opera goers during February
By Mort Levine

When we learned that San Diego Opera’s imaginative company was going to perform Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, we quickly climbed aboard to get some tickets. It will run from February 18 through February 26. Just recently, we discovered that the same opera will also be part of next season’s San Francisco season. That may be the reward for the impulsive opera traveler, but we don’t have any regrets and we don’t have to defer gratification.

We have been intrigued by the Heggie collaboration with librettist Gene Scheer ever since it opened in Dallas at the Winspear Opera House to a blaze of critical glory. At its opening, the audience broke into sustained applause and a shower of shredded programs fluttering down from the highest levels.

The west coast premiere next month will bring together some of the same team as in Dallas. Of special interest is the lone female role portraying the cabin boy Pip, sung and acted by the talented former Opera San José resident artist Talise Travigne. A critic described her work at first as “boyish and puckish and later haunting in madness.” In the innovative staging, she is lost at sea, suspended high above the stage futilely paddling against the daunting waves.

Moby Dick, the powerful novel by Herman Melville, is a massive challenge for the librettist in terms of condensation while retaining the moral tone and the sweeping language. It is equally a challenge for the composer who comes through as he did with Dead Man Walking with accessible vocal music and vivid orchestral work.

The three hour opus features the outstanding tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab, the lethally obsessed pursuer of the legendary white whale. Morris sang an impressive Siegfried in the Met’s Ring Cycle earlier this year.

Baritone Morgan Smith sings Starbuck and Jonathan Lemalu is a suitably coiffed Queequeg, all, along with Talise, in the original cast. Director Leonard Foglia who brought the work to life in Dallas will also direct in San Diego. The longtime musicial director of the company, Karen Keltner, will conduct.

Meanwhile earlier (February 10 through 12) in the Novellus theater at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, the always innovative Nicole Paiement’s Ensemble Parallele will tackle John Harbison’s third opera, The Great Gatsby. This work was a commission of the Metropolitan Opera in 1999.

This unique version is a re-orchestration for chamber orchestra by Jacques Desjardin commissioned by the ensemble and by the Aspen Festival. It will feature an outstanding cast including Opera San José alumnus Jason Detwiler as Nick Carraway. In the F. Scott Fizgerald novel, Nick is the narrator. But Harbison, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, embeds him as a character in the opera.

The music is full of musical references to the 1925 novel which cites popular songs of the Jazz Age. Dance (fox trot, Charleston, tango etc.), always a feature of Ms. Paiement’s work, will be an important aspect of this new production. One critic was struck by the duality of the work which has the casual wildness of the 20s and the contrasting dramatic conflicts of the characters. Daisy, to be sung by Susannah Biller, will take on the role created by soprano Dawn Upshaw, to whom Harbison gave a full measure of trills and ornamentation. The role of cool golf-playing Jordan Baker will be performed by Julienne Walker, and Marco Panuccio sings Gatsby.

It should be a very special operatic experience.

(SJOG Newsletter February, 2012)

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