SAN FRANCISCO — A whale, a swan, a pair of star-cross'd lovers: It made for an eclectic week at the San Francisco Opera.
With the company's fall season in full swing, three different works took the stage on consecutive nights Thursday through Saturday. First was Jake Heggie's intermittently enthralling adaptation of "Moby-Dick"; next, Bellini's retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, "I Capuleti e i Montecchi," in a ravishingly sung, foolishly staged production; and, best of all, Wagner's "Lohengrin," featuring a break-out performance by emerging heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich.
"Moby-Dick," a hit at its premiere in Dallas in 2010 and successfully revived several times since, benefits from a savvy libretto by Gene Scheer, which boils down Melville's sprawling novel to a coherent narrative, while maintaining chunks of his poetic language.
Heggie's music is energetic and appealingly melodic, with echoes of Puccini, Britten, Sibelius and even Bernard Herrmann film scores. The first act maintains an exciting momentum, but Act 2, which should hurtle us toward the catastrophic meeting with the great white whale, bogs down in static exchanges. The biggest weakness of the score is its failure to capture the tragic grandeur of Captain Ahab's obsession. We get an embittered and stubborn old man, not the figure of Shakespearean depth depicted by Melville.
That limitation extends to the performance of tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab. Vocally he is fine, but he seems more gruff and querulous than awe-inspiring. Four cast members are repeating roles they sang at the premiere. Most impressive are tenor Stephen Costello as a lyrical Greenhorn (his last words are the novel's first: "Call me Ishmael") and baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck, the first mate who tries to reason Ahab out of his madness. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu and soprano Talise Trevigne are also good as, respectively, the harpooner Queequeg and the cabin boy Pip. Patrick Summers, who conducted the premiere, leads a rousing performance.
The inventive production, directed by Leonard Foglia with sets by Robert Brill, projections by Elaine J. McCarthy and lighting by Gavan Swift, contributes greatly to the evening. There's a magical moment in Act 1 when the crew of the Pequod encounter a pod of whales. As the men rush to the back of the stage, the ship disappears and they are suddenly in boats that seem to be tossing on a turbulent sea. It's a shame the designers chose not to represent the whale itself in the final scene; we're left watching the men and ship being torn to pieces by an unseen enemy.
Bellini's setting of the story of Romeo and Juliet, "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" is packed with limpid melodies that in the wrong hands can seem insipid. But there was no danger of that with Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell as the lovers. DiDonato, peerless among today's bel canto mezzos-sopranos, imbued Romeo with burnished, even tone, full of ardent longing. Cabell, making her company debut, has a warm, silvery sound that blended well with DiDonato's, though she skipped many of the traditional coloratura ornamentations. Tenor Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo let forth some compelling high notes but otherwise failed to make much impact; the commanding bass-baritone Eric Owens seemed wasted in the role of Giulietta's father, Capellio. Riccardo Frizza conducted stylishly.
The production, directed by Vincent Broussard and first seen in Munich, is a mishmash, intent on imposing social commentary on the fragile plot. Reflective metallic walls dominate the set, and Cabell spent much of her time singing up against them with her back to the audience; she also had to perch precariously on an elevated prayer stand (it looked more like a wash basin) for her opening aria, and later sang while teetering on an imaginary wall. It was all rather distracting. Costume designer Christian Lacroix dressed the men in top hats, and a group of gaudily dressed non-singing courtesans appeared with flowers in their mouths — apparently to represent the fact that women had no voice in the society.
The premiere of "Lohengrin" marked the first time Jovanovich had performed the title role, yet he seemed comfortable in the role from his opening lines, singing with melting sweetness as he bid farewell to the swan that has brought him to Elsa. As the vocal line soared, he repeatedly summoned high notes that pierced through the orchestration with a heroic gleam. He maintained his freshness even in the arduous final scene — though as he took his curtain call to a standing ovation, he grinned and wiped his brow as if in relief. Moreover, with his youthful, handsome physique, he made a compellingly human figure of the knight of the Holy Grail, capturing both Lohengrin's otherworldliness and his romantic longing. Jovanovich sang impressively as Siegmund in the company's "Ring" cycle two years ago, and now with this Lohengrin he has entered the front ranks of Wagnerian singers.
The rest of the cast gave excellent support. Soprano Camilla Nylund made a sympathetic and true-voiced Elsa, who can have Lohengrin as her husband as long as she never asks his name. Soprano Petra Lang tore with relish into the role of the sorceress Ortrud, hurling out chilling high notes in her invocation to the pagan gods; baritone Gerd Grochowski sang with anguished force as her husband, Telramund; Kristinn Sigmundsson intoned the role of King Henry with stentorian power, and baritone Brian Mulligan was a stalwart Herald. The chorus, hugely important in this opera, sang magnificently, and the orchestra played with sweep and majesty under music director Nicola Luisotti.
The production by Daniel Slater, previously seen in Geneva and Houston, suffers from some of the same updating-itis as the Bellini. Sets and costumes, instead of representing 10th century Germany, are inspired by the 1956 Hungarian revolution, with choristers dressed as Soviet-style officers and freedom-fighting partisans. Fortunately, Slater doesn't let the concept interfere with the drama as it plays out among the four principals, and his staging does have the merit of being unusually fluid. Mostly, though, the musical glories of the evening carry everything in their path.