Perhaps it hadn’t been planned that way, but how fitting that the first work heard in the Metropolitan Opera House on the first day of the new millennium was written by an American composer. John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby had received its world premiere at the Met less than two weeks earlier, exquisitely produced. Not everyone was thrilled by the piece, but that is hardly unusual given the mixed, even hostile reception accorded many beloved operas when they were new. It may not be saying much, considering how few contemporary works the Met has staged over the past half century, but The Great Gatsby strikes me as the first new opera produced by the company in living memory that has definite survival potential. The last one I can remember is Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which had its American premiere at the Met back in 1953, and look how long it took that masterpiece to become a repertory staple.
What gives me heart in this case is the fact that Harbison, like Stravinsky and virtually every other important composer who has written a successful opera, takes full charge and makes all the major creative decisions. The fact remains: Music is still the determining factor in opera, and in The Great Gatsby, however one responds to it, the music sets the tone, defines the characters, and drives the dramatic action. This is refreshing after a slew of heavily hyped, musically arid American operas dominated by librettists (Central Park), glitzy spectacle (The Ghosts of Versailles), Philip Glass boilerplate (The Voyage), and trendy topical celebrities (Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, et al.). Taking no chances that other hands might control the material, Harbison wrote the libretto himself, condensing and restructuring the novel for operatic purposes but using F. Scott Fitzgerald’s language as much as possible while preparing the ground for music to do its job.
This hasn’t been achieved without a struggle, and the score does show signs of sweat. Harbison certainly recognizes the problems in adapting this novel: a hero more talked about than theatrically present, a collection of shallow and self-absorbed characters who seem to exist in the past, the purely literary device of a first-person narrator, the ambivalent atmosphere created by Fitzgerald’s masterly uses of understated irony. And how to conjure up the lost-generation sound of twenties American pop music, so much a part of the book’s texture, without resorting to pastiche?
Harbison addresses all these issues with a sure compositional technique and musical sophistication. The entire two-act opera itself is a cunningly organized structure of dramatic parallels and musical interconnections, its symmetries as subtle as those in Berg’s Wozzeck and its tried-and-true operatic devices applied as surely as those that animate great operas from Monteverdi to Britten. The opening scene is a beautifully written piece of operatic exposition, introducing Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom, her best friend Jordan Baker, and the wryly observant Nick Carraway in the Buchanan’s rose-colored drawing room in East Egg, Long Island. Their conversation is easy, melodic, and informational without being excessively wordy or musically dry, as each set piece develops naturally out of the discussion.
The first mention of Gatsby triggers Daisy’s memories of her former lover, generating a recurrent and intriguingly varied orchestral motif. This twisting theme is often associated with the beckoning green light of Daisy’s boat house, but what is strictly a color symbol in the book is here an even more powerfully allusive musical one, eventually standing for all the characters’ unattainable hopes and longings. The theme leads directly into a languid Straussian duet with Jordan, followed by a nostalgic aria for Daisy (“Where is the old warm world”) and a spirited quartet that ends the scene on a high note of expectation. For me, at least, musical interest never lags, right up to Carraway’s rhapsodic eulogy over Gatsby’s coffin, a gorgeous piece of vocal writing and a gift to a lyric baritone who can spin out a sweet and shimmering high G-natural.
As knowledgeable about twenties pop styles as he is about idiomatic operatic composition and what the voice can do best, Harbison weaves period dances into the musical fabric of the score with extraordinary skill. The seams never show, either in the frantic shimmies of the two big party scenes or in the even steamier moments when the earthy mechanic’s wife, Myrtle Wilson, conducts her fateful bump-and-grind trysts with Tom. Nowhere is there an extraneous note or a musical passage that is not commenting actively on some aspect of the plot, characters, or mood of the piece. Whether or not the inventive pull of the music is strong or vital enough to please operagoers raised on Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner is another question. There is an emotional reticence about Harbison’s compositional voice, and Gatsby does not reveal all its secrets immediately. But the score’s craft and accessibility are strong advocates for an opera that should win an audience in time.
The Met has given the work a marvelous first production, despite some casting disappointments. Jane Greenwood’s costumes offer a breathtaking fashion fantasia of the period, ideally complemented by Michael Yeargan’s economical but witty pastel evocations of Long Island society, both high and low. The clarity and theatrical precision of Mark Lamos’s direction could scarcely serve the piece better. One staging coup among many is Gatsby’s first entrance as a silent but powerfully disruptive presence at his own party, suggesting layers of complexity that Jerry Hadley unfortunately fails to convey in his largely un-nuanced performance. Neither he nor Dawn Upshaw as Daisy seem to be in optimum vocal shape – Hadley’s tenor now wobbles badly under pressure, and Upshaw’s soprano, never especially opulent, is sounding rather thin these days – but their inability to bring much interior life to these characters is even more damaging. In her two scenes, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Myrtle manages to create far more of a vocal and theatrical frisson, while Susan Graham’s charmingly dizzy Jordan and Dwayne Croft’s elegantly voiced Nick are always vividly in the picture. James Levine’s orchestra plays the piece to perfection, balancing the score’s tangy sonorities with its wistful melodic content in exactly the right proportions.