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A great understatement

New York
Metropolitan Opera
01/15/2000 -  
John Harbison The Great Gatsby
Dawn Upshaw (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 Lamos (director)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra

John 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.

There were 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.

H.E. Elsom



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