The Great Gatsby

gatsby.jpgMusic and Libretto by John Harbison, set design by Michael Yeargan, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine, starring Dawn Upshaw (Daisy Buchanan), Dwayne Croft (Nick Carraway), Jerry Hadley (Jay Gatsby), and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Myrtle Wilson). Presented Friday evening May 3, 2002. Further performances of the opera this season are May 7th and May 11, 2002.

Review by Tom Savage

There may be no second acts in American life, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby has been given a second chance by the Metropolitan Opera. Its streamlined version, minus twenty or so minutes from the original version presented in 1999, is being performed this spring at the Metropolitan Opera and amounts to a new phenomenon in mainstream American classical music, an efficient opera. Although this idea sounds dreadful in these words, let me say that there is much beautiful music in this opera and that one comes away from this work liking it rather than disliking it. With well-sung ariettas instead of full-blown areas, the opera moves slightly closer to being a play without ever abandoning sung music for spoken words or recitative, which would have slowed down the action, clearly the opposite of what was intended here. The secret of this opera is in its pacing. There is only one real aria in it, at the very end. Thus a naturalistic marriage of music and words is allowed to take place in which there is never an appeal to emotional extremes, as there is in most operas that are standard repertory pieces. These leave audiences with their beloved show-stoppers. The era of recordings has left most people with their beloved excerpts by which they think of opera and which they learn to hear over and over again in their heads once the listening is completed.

The trend away from extended arias in opera has been apparent at least since Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (first performance in 1902). But in the Great Gatsby this trend arrives at a new speed and brevity of execution and compactness which makes for enjoyable listening, without descending or condescending to the level of a Broadway musical which, because of the high quality of the orchestral writing Gatsby threatens to do only when the period jazz numbers are introduced which are short, quite lovely, and fully integrated into the opera as a whole. Thus there is neither a cheapening of the classical context of the rest of the opera nor a misuse of jazz, an equally great musical art form in its own right. The best of these short jazz numbers is the one in which a radio seems to sing, and as far as I know, unique operatic example of something apparently mechanical which is obviously sung offstage.

John Harbison's music is in an eclectic idiom of post-Stravinsky modernism with jazz elements added. Stravinsky and many other modern composers of classical music have used jazz but it may still be fairly unusual to find it in mainstream opera. The total effect musically is a near equality of sorts between the orchestral music and that of the vocal soloists.

From the point of view of a lover of modern music, the star of this opera is the orchestra, since most of the interesting music lies with the conductor and his players. This is where the changing moods of the piece reside more than with the singers who, although marvelous, are integrated into orchestral music rather than vice versa, as usually happens in opera. One can conceivably see a suite or series of suites being extracted by the composer and being played widely at orchestral concerts, should that be Harbison's interest.

The décor and set design set the social context for the piece, the milieu. The scenes set in Gatsby's dwelling show clearly a very rich or nearly rich man. The scene between Tom and his mistress shows her relative poverty. The set designs are good, natural, and diverted little attention to themselves away from the music and action, which, in this instance of a naturalistic although period setting, was perfection with the exception of a large object on the right of the stage as seen from the audience (called stage left, I believe) during the scene between Tom and his mistress, the reason for which and nature of which I was at a loss to understand.

There are some semi-oriental uses of percussion I the second scene. There is also a wonderful short chorus "Bad drivers should not drive at night" as a man is carried away who has been hurt in a car crash. There is a touch of almost Straussian wistfulness toward the end of the first act of the opera. Up until then or until the car crash at least, this opera has a curious serenity to it. Although Daisy has several fine Ariettas (sung by the great Dawn Upshaw), the finest piece of vocal writing, and the only real, full-length operatic aria belongs to Nick Carraway (sung by the truly superb Dwayne Croft). Being a somewhat philosophical rather than emotional showpiece it is unique in mainstream modern opera but has its precedents in early operas where we find similar statements sung by gods, goddesses, and sometimes powerful but often secondary human characters.

The original aims of opera in the 17th century included equality of words and music, based on a presumed ancient Greek model of lost music attached to ancient Greek plays. Gatsby, because of its current pacing, approaches this aim in the sung parts. But as the orchestral music dominates the whole, the end effect is different. Well, as F. Scott Fitzgerald also said, the test of a truly first rate intelligence is the ability to hold the two opposed ideas in the mind and still retain the ability to function.

The history of American opera is full of interesting works which received no second performances or few. Gatsby has defied this pattern by surviving at the Met for several seasons. In earlier centuries, operas were often revised after first productions; a famous more recent example being that of Richard Strauss' Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme/Ariadne Auf Naxos, in which Strauss' great opera was originally inserted into a production of Moliere's great play with some incidental music (1912). The cost of revising operas onstage is mostly prohibiting now. But the Metropolitan Opera has kindly given Harbison the option and it has apparently worked. I say apparently because this reviewer did not witness the original version of Gatsby. This version definitely succeeds.

In short, the Great Gatsby is a wonderful opera which, like exceptional earlier American operas by Menotti, Barber, Moore and only a couple of others, probably has a life beyond its initial one or two productions. It is also a significant moment in the history of the Metropolitan Opera which, since the failure of Antony and Cleopatra on the Met's opening night at Lincoln Center in the 1960s has been reluctant to commission or present new operas. Perhaps this institutional fear has finally been overcome and the twenty-first century will see American opera finally emerge from the shadows and be presented on an equal footing with works by Bizet, Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Debussy, Berlioz, Delibes, and all the other great opera composers of the past.

Much has been written about The Great Gatsby's fidelity to its source, the Fitzgerald novel. I have chosen not to discuss this but rather to approach the opera as an independent work of art. Were I to review a production of Verdi's Rigoletto, for instance, I would feel no need to relate it to Victor Hugo's play Le Roi S'Amuse upon which the opera is based.

In conclusion, this reviewer applauds the Metropolitan Opera for its commitment to The Great Gatsby, looks forward to hearing it again, and other new operas soon.