It has been the great American century in many things, perhaps, but not opera, at least not for the great American opera company, the Metropolitan. American work is rare at the Met; new American work is rarer still. But as the clock winds down, Times Square prepares its ball, and the city bursts at the seams with harried shoppers and young revelers, the Met, Monday night, squeezed in one last premiere, John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.” And in a particularly nice gesture, it will usher in the new year with it as well, repeating the new opera on its Jan. 1 matinee radio broadcast.
“The Great Gatsby” is, above all, an opera of great intelligence, subtlety and expertise. Harbison has lived with the dream of a “Gatsby” opera for a very long time--it was on his mind back in the 1980s when he was composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is a literary-minded composer and wrote the librettos to his other operas--one after Shakespeare (“A Winter’s Tale”) and the other after Yeats (“A Full Moon in March”)--as he did for “Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous moody novel may have failed in various attempts to stage it as straight play, television production or film, its soulless Jazz Age characters more poetic ideas than flesh and blood. But Harbison has sensed that Fitzgerald’s “blankets of excellent prose,” as the novelist once described his writing, will not resist the poetic language of music, and he has provided it.
Indeed, what Harbison’s “Gatsby” does well, it does very well. Much pre-premiere attention has been drawn to the use of period dance tunes--fox trots, rumbas, tangos and the like--that Harbison has written and incorporated into the score in various ways. It turns out he has a flair for them, bright and beguiling melodies (with terrifically engaging June-moon lyrics written by Murray Horwitz) that are corrupted by the more sinister music that is the real tone of this sobering opera.
Harbison is a master at capturing mood, psychology and emotion in his characterful orchestral writing. He is a subversive composer; there is, in his work, always something going on underneath the surface, contradicting or altering the direction you think the music is taking. Consequently, the best thing his opera does is dramatize the subversive nature of the novel, eroding the forced Roaring ‘20s gaiety and emptiness with dark currents. (I wonder if that is what made the audience around me so uncomfortable--there was rude chatter and restless coughing throughout the performance and many empty seats after intermission.)
Still, the opera takes to the lyric stage with a certain lack of ease. Harbison may have solved too many problems. He has succeeded in creating a straightforward dramatic narrative, with all the properly operatic elements of languid love, hot sex, jealousy, murder, party scenes and a funeral. Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, is just another character but still the focus of the opera, since he is the only one in it who gains some self-knowledge out of the tragedy. Underlying music, however, shows the twisted inner struggles of callous, world-weary Long Islanders, unable to confront their emotions.
Fitzgerald wraps his novel in mystery, gradually revealing (and never really explaining) Jay Gatsby, the elusive, corrupt, self-made millionaire whose legitimacy revolves around the acceptance of an early love and another man’s wife, the capricious Daisy Buchanan. They are real on the stage before us, but Harbison plays an intricate game of evolving their musical character gradually. This is hard, though, to sustain dramatically; and it means that Gatsby’s initial music, for instance, is a bit flat. It takes a while for the opera to sink in, and both of the long acts have trouble sustaining energy.
Like everything else about this opera, the performance was full of conflicting elements. The production is dull, but the cast is exceptional. Dawn Upshaw seems at first a curiously nuanced and substantial Daisy, but we see in her the profound battle between being true to herself and her society, and we hear in her what Fitzgerald called the voice of money. Jerry Hadley, a less nuanced singer, makes for an unusually transparent Gatsby, forthright and a bit shrill (it surely wasn’t intended, but a touch of vocal insecurity was apt).
The most captivating character in the opera is Myrtle, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (in a much belated Met debut) found in her pure sexual fire a symbol of combustible passion that attracts and terrifies all the other characters. Mark Baker is a frighteningly block-headed Tom. Susan Graham, an alluringly sensual soprano, makes for an interestingly vulnerable Jordan Baker, the jaded golfer. Dwayne Croft’s Nick seems, at first, inappropriately superficial (at least compared with the book’s narrator), but that ends up making his growth throughout the opera more meaningful.
Director Mark Lamos’ direction is unimaginative, and Michael Yeargan’s impressionistic sets are little more than gauze and a few cheap-looking props. Jane Greenwood’s flapper-era costumes knock Long Island taste.
But under that bland stage is all the color in the world. The Met commissioned “Gatsby” to commemorate the 25th anniversary of James Levine’s debut with the company. The opera was his choice, and he conducted it with a fervent attention to every detail. Remarkably, the much celebrated Met orchestra played as if it lived with American music every day.
* John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby,” Metropolitan Opera, through Jan. 15, (212) 362-6000.