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Moby-Dick the Opera Sails Onto Your TV Screen

10/31/2013 03:38 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2013

Last year, San Francisco Opera's company premiere of Moby-Dick (music by Jake Heggie; libretto by Gene Scheer) was a real event, and now we can see it (or see it again) by way of the alphabet soup of PBS, DVD and Blu-ray. The company's great production will be telecast on Great Performances on November 1, and the DVD and Blu-ray versions are newly available. Heggie and conductor Patrick Summers will sign copies of Moby-Dick in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House lobby on November 3, after the matinee performance of The Flying Dutchman.

There were multiple reasons for excitement even before the curtain rose in San Francisco last fall, because the composer lives in San Francisco and because the work (commissioned by SFO and Dallas Opera) is based on one of our greatest novels.

The real cause for excitement, of course, was the production itself. Scheer took Herman Melville's massive novel and, while providing a sense of life at sea -- the storms, the whale hunting in dinky rowboats, the task of rendering blubber into oil -- shaped it into a tale of relationships, essentially, conveyed through Heggie's compelling arias, duets and ensembles. Unforgettable moments include the duet by the lost young Greenhorn and the noble Queequeg, singing from two masts against an indigo sky; the beautiful aria by Starbuck, the first mate, longing for his wife and son; and Captain Ahab's revelation that, after 40 years ("not three of them on land"), he is well aware of his obsession with killing the white whale and all that has cost him. Indeed, Starbuck, who, in another strong scene, considered killing Ahab as he slept, almost persuades him to set sail for home and the families awaiting them.

The fine performances were by Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab, Stephen Costello as Greenhorn, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg and the charismatic Morgan Smith as Starbuck. But I have to rave on about the set designs, created in large part through highly imaginative lighting (designed by Gavan Swift) and rear projections (designed by Elaine McCarthy). As the opera opens, for instance, we see a teeming star-filled sky soon pierced with silvery lines that first appear to be tracing constellations, then slowly but surely form a high mast, then masts and sails, then the doomed Pequod, moving ever closer until a solid black prow fills the length of the stage. With Heggie's quiet, evocative orchestration, it's a stunning start.

The curved back wall of the stage, or "sweep," is painted white -- to better convey projected images of fire, cloudy sky, storm-tossed sea -- and studded with narrow seats or footholds. At one point, the white lines form three rowboats in which the perfectly placed harpooners sit, against a projection of glittering ocean. Later, a portion of the wall folds down to show the sailors rendering whale oil at a blazing furnace.

The only disappointment is the blur of grayness and one huge eye meant to convey the mighty whale. It is too little, in all senses, and unclear, as is the action meant to indicate the destruction of the whalers and the ship itself -- a letdown, to be sure. But then we see Greenhorn, the only survivor, floating atop a coffin on that endless sea. So even with that one misstep, I say, Give that brilliant staging an ovation! And enjoy it for yourself in the comfort of home.

Nov. 1, Moby-Dick on PBS's Great Performances, 9 pm (see local listings); Signing, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.861.4008, sfopera.com.

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