A great understatement
John Harbison The Great Gatsby
(Daisy Buchanan), Susan Graham (Jordan Baker), Dwayne Croft (Nick
Carraway), Mark Baker (Tom Buchanan), Richard Paul Fink (George
Wilson), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Myrtle Wilson), Matthew Polenzani
(Radio singer/Band vocalist), Jerry Hadley (Jay Gatsby), Rachel Dudley
(Tango singer), William Powers (Meyer Wolfshiem), Frederick Burchinal
(Henry Gatz), LeRoy Lehr (Minister)
James Levine (conducter), Mark
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Harbison's The Great Gatsby was commissioned by the Metropolitan
Opera to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of James Levine's debut
there. Its source in an American classic novel perhaps justifies its
presence at the Met, but the poster for Gatsby looks odd among
all the Rigolettos, Butterflys and Traviatas
outside. Harbison's cerebral musical style, intertwined with clever
pastiches of popular songs and dances from the 1920s, doesn't, on the
whole, offer the traditional pleasures of opera, with conventional
emotional climaxes and opportunities for beautiful singing and high
notes. The Met audience at this last peformance of the premiere season
seemed underwhelmed in spite of a near perfect cast and often exquisite
performanced by the orchestra.
Perhaps Harbison misjudged in
including Peter Grimes-like interludes, evocative though they
were, at every scene change. Both acts were well over an hour long,
which is a long time for anyone to go without a cough and a fidget. But
more generally, the brittle narrative of the engagement of emotionally
sterile socialites with a sentimental fraud, for which Harbison's music
is perfect, is probably too austere and self-ironizing for this sort of
house. The Great Gatsby, with its parvenu hero who turns out to
be superior in tragic circumstances to the aristocrats, belongs in the
American equivalent to the world of Renoir's Rules of the game.
Sondheim considered Renoir's film as a source when he was
planning A little night music, which Harbison's Gatsby
resembles with its obsessive thematic repetitions (languid cumulations
of pitch for summer days, funny orchestra noises for bad drivers, a
foxtrot that jumps out at every opportunity) and its lapidiary
symmetries. Although there are entertaining sections, you have to pay
attention, and almost certainly hear Gatsby more than once. It's
not clear whether it will in fact have the status of A little night
music, or Peter Grimes, but it's certainly not an American
turkey like Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire which rides almost
entirely on the classic status of its source.
inevitably some problems with Harbison's extremely elegant filletting of
the novel into ten dramatic scenes. His core difficulty was obviously
dealing with a narrator who, transparent himself, if sometimes drunk, is
also a kind of mirror of Gatsby so that we see the alleged hero through
oblique refractions until he appears solid in his final self-sacrifice.
Similarly, Jordan Baker is explicitly unreliable, but she is the main
source of "factual" information about Daisy. Harbison makes Nick
Carraway, the narrator, and Jordan into a kind of male and female chorus
who update us on the background to the plot and provide a rudimentary
commentary. Their own affair almost disappears, except for its end when
both of them find they don't have time for it in the complexities around
Myrtle's and Gatsby's deaths. There were times when you wondered why
these people with no feelings or interests were standing around.
Conversely, Harbison gave Jay Gatsby two sentimental soliloquies which,
while they provided a more traditional "operatic" focus, gave too much,
and too simple a, substance to a character who is meant to be a mystery
wrapped in an enigma. Jerry Hadley's benign presence probably also
didn't help in this respect, but his performance of these two numbers
was engaging and moving in spite of their inappropriateness in the work.
Dratmically, Hadley's Gatsby was far too easy to like, far too solid and
almost totally lacking in vocal or personal charisma.
The rest of the cast, though, were close to ideal dramatically and
vocally. Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Myrtle were
strongly characterized and contrasted, with a touch of Polly and Lucy --
Upshaw all sophisticated triviality, Hunt Lieberson earthy sensuality.
Both sang in something like music-theatre style, very effectively in the
massive house. Susan Graham was a strapping, thoroughly sporty Jordan,
gorgeous in her vapid duets with Upshaw. Dwayne Croft was a lightweight
Nick, with a very beautiful voice. Mark Baker was a horribly thuggish
Tom, not quite plausible as an athlete but definitely someone who would
break his working-class girlfriend's nose.
Tom's racist paranoia, incidentally, was rewritten as fear of the
"underclass", though the word and concept didn't exist until the 1950s.
This is understandable, given how offensive his original rants about the
"colored races" would be in performance today. But there was little to
characterize Tom as "respectable" -- his putative superiority to the
presumably Jewish Gatsby is based purely on their respective ethnic
backgrounds in the novel. Somehow the anxiety about the fragility of
civilization, and the uncertain relationship between goodness and
civilization, doesn't bite in the opera as it should.
The performers in the smaller roles were all effective, particulary
Richard Paul Fink as George Wilson, and like the chorus (partying on in
detail) impeccably choreographed and directed.