[Met Performance] CID:332252
World Premiere
The Great Gatsby {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/20/1999.

(Debuts: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, William Powers, Albert Regni, Peter Bond, Tom Hutchinson, Christopher John Hall, Michael Werner, Linda Hall, Scott Kuney, Ming-Feng Hsin

Metropolitan Opera House
December 20, 1999

World Premiere


Jay Gatsby..............Jerry Hadley
Daisy Buchanan..........Dawn Upshaw
Tom Buchanan............Mark W. Baker
Nick Carraway...........Dwayne Croft
Jordan Baker............Susan Graham
George Wilson...........Richard Paul Fink
Myrtle Wilson...........Lorraine Hunt Lieberson [Debut]
Radio/Band Singer.......Matthew Polenzani
Tango Singer............Jennifer Dudley
Meyer Wolfshiem.........William Powers [Debut]
Henry Gatz..............Frederick Burchinal
Minister................LeRoy Lehr

Stage Band:
Albert Regni, Clarinet/Soprano Saxophone [Debut]
Peter Bond, Trumpet [Debut]
Tom Hutchinson, Trombone [Debut]
Christopher John Hall, Tuba [Debut]
Michael Werner, Trap Set [Debut]
Linda Hall, Piano [Debut]
Scott Kuney, Banjo [Debut]
Ming-Feng Hsin, Violin [Debut]

Conductor...............James Levine

Production..............Mark Lamos
Set designer............Michael Yeargan
Costume designer........Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer.......Duane Schuler
Choreographer...........Robert La Fosse

Commission made possible by a gift of The Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation

Additional funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; AT&T; The DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund; the National Endowment for the Arts; and an Anonymous Donor

[Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the debut of James Levine.]

[THE GREAT GATSBY has received eight performances this season and twelve performances in two seasons.]

Photograph of Dawn Upshaw, Jerry Hadley, and Mark Baker in The Great Gatsby by Winnie Klotz/Metropolitan Opera.

Review of John Freeman in the March 2000 OPERA NEWS

Whether or not Harbison's "The Great Gatsby," which was given its premiere at the Met on December 20 is a success will depend largely on how reverently one views the novel.

Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald's book The Great Gatsby doesn't really want to be translated for the stage or screen. It's a very literary novel - a rumination on its era, the Roaring Twenties, and their overlay of harsh, energetic activity on a mushy underbed of bogus nostalgia. Perhaps "Gatsby" could have been a great musical, a sort of non-parodistic "The Boyfriend," but the thoughtful reflections would have had to be left out. Making it into an opera, John Harbison chose (or inevitably ended up with) a mixed-genre approach. His version, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on December 20, combines elements of the Broadway musical with what in Germany is called "literature opera," a background score to an important piece of writing. The result shares some of the strengths of Broadway with some of the weaknesses of Eurotrash intellectualism. By the same token, however, it avoids Broadway's pat commercial turns, and Harbison has written music more substantial and interesting than that of most literature operas.

The Great Gatsby was commissioned for the Met to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of resource and instinct. Pastel shadings in the orchestra were built and sustained with the same poise and panache that gave the right lilt and tone to the score's popular songs. For the latter, Harbison worked with lyricist Murray Horwitz, a man of protean talents, who captured the spirit of the Jazz Age just as surely as did the composer. There's talk of offering the songs as a suite, adding more that Horwitz wrote on instrumental tunes from the opera.

Writing with easy assurance in both his own idiom and the quasi-popular, Harbison makes no self-conscious effort to blend the two; they change places naturally, as they would in a film score. The composer uses harmony conservatively enough to reach a general audience, yet he often confounds one's expectations in a sly, personal and telling way. In vocal lines he makes the words clear, sometimes reaching out in attractive melodic arcs, but favoring line-by-line nuance over simple, singable melody. In orchestral writing, on the other hand, he doesn't shy away from obvious auto horns and train whistles where subtler evocation would lie well within his impressive range of technical skills. Such lapses notwithstanding, it's the orchestral interludes that make the score's most forceful statements, with a palpability of mood and dramatic direction often missed in the singers' meandering dialogue.

Whether or not this "Gatsby" is a success will depend largely on how reverently one views the novel. All too much of it is there in Harbison's libretto, and the spirit of characters and story is treated with respectful insight. What the composer has not done is to refashion the material according to a conventional operatic formula of lyricism and crisis/resolution, with dialogue, digression and detail pared to a minimum. The closest he comes is in commentary by the chorus of guests at Gatsby's parties, in solos for the principals and in an effective quintet that spins out of Daisy's aria in the hotel-suite scene, when Gatsby and Daisy's husband, Tom, confront each other.

On the other hand, the love scene between Daisy and Gatsby late in Act I comes off as bland and floaty, where a romantic pop ballad might have served better, conveying the banal stereotype of their shared fantasy. By far the strongest characterization goes to Myrtle Wilson, the floozy with whom Tom is having an affair. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in an auspicious Met debut, made the most of this, adapting the intensity and charisma that have made her the darling of Baroque-opera enthusiasts. Daisy Buchanan, though the central female figure, is a lightweight, getting by on the flirtatious, casual charm of which Southern women are routinely accused. Where Hunt Lieberson solved Myrtle's dramatic problems by singing and acting in a heavily underlined torchy style, Dawn Upshaw dealt with Daisy's by relying on the coy, scoopy coo that has become her trademark; gentle and insinuating. It worked, shaping the girl's personality as an exaggeration of itself.

Susan Graham's no-nonsense portrayal of Jordan Baker, the competitive golfer, landed squarely on the green. The mezzo's adult, breezy style offered a refreshing antidote to Upshaw's girlish, melting allure. The men's casting, as astute as the women's, featured Jerry Hadley as a carefully groomed, vocally discreet Gatsby. Somehow the tenor managed to convey the blend of anonymous social correctness and reserved mystery that make Gatsby a tabula rasa for the observer to guess about; but in his passion for Daisy, he started to teeter on the edge, revealing what he has carefully repressed, blurting out nostalgic nonsense as though it were sacred writ. This made an interesting character of what could be an enigmatic shadow. Only in a few taxingly written phrases did Hadley succumb to brief moments of upper-end vocal strain. His diction throughout was superb.

As Tom, Fitzgerald's caricature of a bluff Ivy League Philistine, Mark Baker struck the right dramatic note, arrogant but strangely unsure of himself emotionally - an ambivalence well suited to the tenor's firm tone, with its suggestion of compulsive control and latent hysteria. The garage mechanic George Wilson, a cipher in the novel, emerges here as more sympathetic, crushed by the contempt of Myrtle, his wife; baritone Richard Paul Fink caught the man's pressured despair. Dwayne Croft's Nick Carraway - both narrator and participant in the novel, and a rather smug self-portrait of Fitzgerald -stood for coolness and composure, sharing more of himself only in his closing monologue. There were fine vignettes by Matthew Polenzani as the Band Vocalist and Radio Singer, just right in tenor; William Powers (house debut) as the laconic, sinister Meyer Wolfshiern (Fitzgerald's oddball spelling of "Wolfsheim") Jennifer Dudley as a tango singer; LeRoy Lehr as the minister at Gatsby's funeral; and Frederick Burchinal as Gatsby's befuddled father, Henry Gatz, who drifts in after it's all over.

Indeed, in Fitzgerald's book, the party was over. His ruminations (via Nick) read like an epitaph, letting the reader down easy; but on the opera stage they prolong things almost beyond endurance. As Mussorgsky discovered in his struggles to revise "Boris Godunov," when the title character dies, the audience is ready to go home. Gatsby, besides seeming to need division into three acts rather than two, lacks movement at critical places, and the final tableau, like the overture that precedes the opera, is simply too long.

Mark Lamos has directed his characters with an eye to films of the period and a sense for the frenetic undertow of a giddy epoch. Michael Yeargan's simple sets, apparently conceived in terms of an exchangeable production (Lyric Opera of Chicago is slated to get it next season), stress verticals and an airy feeling. Exceptions are the garage scene, with its dark, Expressionist feeling (the car lift looms far too high., and the claustrophobic hotel suite. (Myrtle's death by Daisy's hit-and-run driving takes place offstage.) The house and party sets provide a nonthreatening backdrop for Jane Greenwood's radiant costumes, which look even more glorious in motion, during the reckless dance episodes choreographed by Robert La Fosse. Duane Schuler's lighting treats both elements gracefully, but it seems a nautical gaffe to make a flashing beacon of the symbolic green light across the bay, on the end of the Buchanans' dock.

[first] night was received respectfully; one or two loud, lonely boos aside, the long lineup of curtain calls aroused warmer enthusiasm. This reaction seemed to indicate caution about the opera, but recognition that it had received an ideal production. "The Great Gatsby" may still be a work in progress, or it may just take some getting used to - or both. And what other recent opera has sent people home humming its tunes?

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