Category: Archive

Theater Review A pretty good, but not great, ‘Gatsby’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE GREAT GATSBY, an opera by John Harbison. Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. At Metropolitan Opera House. Through Jan. 15.

In one of those ironies with which American literature abounds, the subtlest and most enduring interpreter of the habits of the privileged, upper class WASP the moneyed Eastern Seaboard Protestant, was a middle-class Irish-Catholic from the Midwest, namely Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, known to the world as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Published in 1925, when its author was 29, "The Great Gatsby" was recently voted the greatest of all American novels. Filmed three times, first in a forgotten 1926 version, and then in 1949, and, most recently, in 1974, the book has now been adapted as an opera, with the Irish-American tenor Jerry Hadley in the title role of Jay Gatsby, the mysterious self-made Long Island millionaire.

With Dawn Upshaw as Gatsby’s lost love, Daisy Buchanan, Dwayne Croft as the stalwart Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, Susan Graham as Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker, and the debuting Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Myrtle Wilson, the mistress of Daisy’s polo-playing husband, Tom Buchanan, played by Mark Baker, the cast, directed by the theatrically respected Mark Lamos was as sterling an ensemble as any opera company in the world could hope to recruit.

With sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Duane Schuler and choreography, mainly frantic Charlestons, by Robert LaFosse, the Met very obviously decided to have their "Gatsby" travel first class all the way. It appears to have come up with a piece of potentially powerful musical theater, calling it an opera.

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Still, the sheer immensity of the Metropolitan Opera House alone seemed to wage war against the subtleties and intimacies of Harbison’s treatment of Fitzgerald’s book, with the elegant cast of singing actors sometimes seeming swamped by the distances they had to travel in order to play some rather small-scale scenes.

Evidence that someone close to the production realized that "Gatsby" inherently belonged in the world of musical theater might be the hiring of Murray Horwitz to write what the program called "popular song lyrics," meaning pastiche versions of examples of the sorts of musical styles with which Jay and Daisy and their friends would have been familiar.

The words attached by Horwitz to Harbison’s "tunes" are heard whenever a character turns on a radio, or when the onstage dance band entertains the guests at one of the elaborate parties thrown by the enigmatic Gatsby at his elegant Long Island mansion.

That 61-year-old Harbison is capable of creating dense and compelling orchestral textures. Where he seems to have encountered difficulty is in freeing himself from the text. Harbison appears to have been somewhat intimidated by Fitzgerald’s stature, to the point where much of "Gatsby" comes across as a form of sung dialogue, underscored by a discreetly quiet orchestration.’

In other words, Harbison seems not to have found a way of freeing Fitzgerald’s characters, of allowing them to soar vocally in the kinds of arias, duets and trios that heighten and intensify emotional involvement and response on the part of audiences, which is precisely what music written for the human voice does best.

Jerry Hadley, one of the better American tenors currently working on the world’s operatic stages, is not an ideal Jay Gatsby, particularly with the vocal raggedness that plagued his performance on the work’s opening night. The stocky and vaguely plebeian Hadley seems inherently devoid of the mystery and magic that were the hallmarks of Jay Gatsby.

Harbison’s slightly pallid version of "The Great Gatsby" appears to be a rarity among modern operas, namely a work that, while hardly immortal, seems unlikely to disappear after a single season.

Considering the fact that, in the course of the 20th century, the Metropolitan Opera produced world premieres of 20 American operas, not one of which managed to earn a solid place in the repertory, "The Great Gatsby" could be said to be facing fairly long odds as it gambles for survival.

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