The score is mostly atmospheric, however, its foreboding drama cranked up to eleven throughout, with little standout melody or tonal attenuation to help the characters' souls drop anchor. Despite a few memorable moments of soaring vocal lines — a duet in praise of Kokovoko's Edenic promise by Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu, imposing) and Ishmael (Stephen Costello, cubbishly adorable), sung from neighboring masts ; Starbuck's ode to homelife back in Nantucket (performed by wonderfully powerful baritone Morgan Smith); the occasional cryptic outbursts of Pip (spry soprano Talise Trevigne, who does a bit of magic with a tambourine) — you'll have to cling to the singers' voices and acting technique if you want to keep emotionally afloat.
This becomes a problem with Jay Hunter Morris in the Ahab role. Although strongly voiced and valiantly game, he didn't connect with me as a man who was truly obsessed, yet who retained enough charisma and cunning to draw the rest of the crew into his singular madness. His role struck me more as "friends' crazy Tea Party dad" than "scarily fascinating apocalyptic cult leader."
This could be a wrinkle of the libretto, which retains some of the original's poetry and blasphemy — a pagan hymn here, an anti-religion diatribe there — but strains to convey an engaging dramatic arc for the characters. (It barely registers when all is lost for the Pequod.) In its earnest bluster, this presentation of the opera also skims over Melville's haunting metaphysics, the eerie pull of nihilistic depths, the ecstatic fog of moral derangement, that preternatural whistle in fate's vast gale. I disembarked from the rousing Moby-Dick dazzled and exhausted, though neither questing nor blubbering.
MOBY-DICK through Nov. 2, various times, $10–$340. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, SF. www.sfopera.com