American Beauties

Good Eggs: Dwayne Croft and Dawn Upshaw in The Great Gatsby.Photo: Beatriz Schiller

New American operas continue to be comparative rarities with the life span of butterflies, but perhaps all that is beginning to change. Three specimens were prominently on display in just one week not long ago, two of them actually enjoying return New York engagements. Has the millennium arrived at last? Probably not, but at least prospects are looking brighter for a body of native work that was once described by the late music critic Alfred Frankenstein, not altogether inaccurately, as “a heap of melancholy disasters.”

Stephen Paulus’s Heloise and Abelard, which had its world premiere at the Juilliard School, was brusquely tossed on that garbage pile by the Times’ Paul Griffiths, a British music critic who also writes opera librettos for American composers he rates higher than Paulus (apparently, conflict of interest is no longer an issue at the Times). Such a dismissive judgment is excessively harsh, I think, even if one is not partial to this opera’s tonally ambiguous but essentially conservative idiom or to a subject that has its lurid aspects. Frank Corsaro’s libretto gives both clarity and tragic dimension to the familiar tale of two medieval lovers who defy the church and convention; he presents characters who develop in interesting ways and creates effective dramatic situations that offer a composer every opportunity to seize the moment. Paulus, an experienced opera composer with seven previous works to his credit, does precisely that. Each of the three acts builds surely to a climax, the lyrical vocal lines tap into what a voice can do best, and the whole score is bathed in a luminous texture that captures the medieval religious flavor of the drama as well as its bittersweet conflict between sex and the spirit.

Lauren Skuce and John Hancock brought vocal allure and an appealing poignancy to the title roles, benefiting from Corsaro’s fluid yet taut staging and Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s sympathetic musical direction. In fact, the entire cast seemed caught up in the piece, not always the case with a new opera. No operatic frontiers may have been explored here, but Heloise and Abelard is an astutely crafted, musically absorbing, and theatrically affecting work, one that deserves a future and many more productions.

Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland does break new ground. This 90-minute opera in the form of a TV talk show seemed just as edgy and timely at the John Jay College Theater, presented as part of Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series, as it did six years ago at the Kitchen. It was clever of Rouse to notice that the whole talk-show ritual is already operatic, what with its aggressive confrontations and confessional aria-and-ensemble format. Beyond that, he makes theatrical capital from another feature peculiar to talk shows, namely, the way in which the guests and the audience function as two competing worlds controlled and manipulated by the officiating host, in this case a smooth sleaze named Dennis Cleveland and played by Rouse himself.

Under the constant glare of typical television-studio lighting and the prying eyes of myriad TV monitors (John Jesurun’s inspired set and video design are now even more unrelentingly in-your-face than at the Kitchen), the show works up to its harrowing finale, a chilling anthem hailing the promise of salvation through popular culture. The musical fabric of the work is carefully organized from the many different sources that have influenced composers of Rouse’s generation: rock, serialism, rhythmic phasing, rap, a variety of world musics, jazz, minimalism, heavy metal, you name it. Rouse has added his own voice to the mix, a technique involving multiple unpitched voices moving in strict metric counterpoint. Listening to it all come together is fascinating as an abstract musical experience, but the total package never loses sight of its theatrical mission – a real opera, in other words, and one that takes the form to a new place.

With John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, we are back in an aesthetic world that most operagoers will find more familiar. Even at that, adapting a major work of literature for the stage is never easy, and not everyone was convinced by what Harbison had done to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel when it was first seen at the Metropolitan Opera two seasons ago. Since then, the work has been performed in Chicago, where the composer made a few nips and tucks that were supposed to solve problems of pacing and the occasional longueur. These revisions were incorporated into the Met’s recent revival, although I noticed nothing that drastically altered the shape or content of the score.

But then, I admired The Great Gatsby the first time around and was glad to see it again. This is a work that hardly reveals all its secrets immediately despite the accessible idiom and the seamless incorporation of twenties pop styles into the score. Like Paulus and Rouse, Harbison believes that the composer should be the dominant creative force in opera (an old-fashioned notion that can’t be taken for granted these days), and he has exercised his right to control the direction of the piece even to the point of writing the libretto himself. This is an opera that definitely sings, but perhaps too reticently for those bred on Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. Listened to closely, though, Fitzgerald’s lost souls and their predicaments emerge with a quiet eloquence that subtly reflects the understated ironies of the book and adds a musical dimension that is often quite moving. Nowhere in this carefully composed opera is there an extraneous note or musical passage that does not comment actively on some aspect of the plot, characters, or mood of the piece.

It was noble of the Met to bring back The Great Gatsby, looking even smarter in Mark Lamos’s precision staging than it did two years ago and still sounding very handsome under James Levine’s musical direction. The standout performances continue to be Dwayne Croft’s elegantly sung Nick Carraway, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s riveting cameo as Myrtle Wilson, and Dawn Upshaw’s vastly improved, more sharply defined Daisy Buchanan. The major flaw is once again Jerry Hadley, whose reduced vocal estate and inability to inhabit any aspect of Jay Gatsby’s enigmatic character leave a gaping hole in the production.

Heloise and Abelard
Premiere of a new opera by Stephen Paulus, at the Juilliard School.
Dennis Cleveland
Opera by Mikel Rouse, presented by Lincoln Center at John Jay College Theater.
The Great Gatsby
Metropolitan Opera
presentation of the opera by John Harbison.

American Beauties