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Not So Great

The Great Gatsby and The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera, Chicago

Opera review, October 13, 2000

I'd love to be able to say nice things about The Great Gatsby, the new opera by John Harbison running at the Lyric. It's a praiseworthy project--a major new work by a leading contemporary composer that's a grandly ambitious adaptation of a genuine American classic. No contemporary opera in years has been so eagerly awaited; the world premiere last year in New York was so festooned with hype you would have thought the whole future of live opera performance was riding on the outcome. The atmosphere at the Lyric wasn't quite so tense--everybody's expectations had been ratcheted back a notch after the mixed reviews in New York--but there was still no doubt on opening night that this was the most important event of the Chicago operatic season.

What a pity it sucked. Oh, it wasn't a legendary down-in-flames fiasco. It wasn't even the worst thing I've seen at the Lyric recently. It was nowhere near as excruciating as last season's pomo travesty of Verdi's Macbeth, which transported the action to a down-market rooming house and morphed Macbeth himself into a splatter-punk version of Ralph Kramden. At least this is the Gatsby everybody remembers, with all of Fitzgerald's glitzy allure intact. Actually if all you do is look it isn't a bad way to pass an evening. Stage director Mark Lamos, set designer Michael Yeargan, and lighting designer Duane Schuler all turn in exemplary work; the visual style is a perfect representation of the novel's jazzy, sinister languor.

The only problems are the libretto, the score, and the performances. You could tell things were going off the rails when the opening tableau, a pantomime of Gatsby's funeral, immediately created a mood of solemnity, which the following scenes never attempted to dissipate. The whole thing had the stultifying seriousness of the would-be masterpiece. About midway through the first act, signs of boredom and restlessness were apparent around the auditorium, and the comments I overheard during intermission were scathing (or, worse, uncomfortably polite). There were scattered walkouts in the second act, and the final curtain was greeted with tepid applause. Harbison had made a big show of cutting and revising the score since New York--even his sympathetic critics said it was too long--but it was pretty obvious that the work couldn't be qualitatively improved unless he went on trimming until nothing was left.

I still think a Gatsby opera is a good idea. One of the most striking things about the novel is how incipiently operatic it is--it's practically a libretto as it stands. Behind the brittle, chic neoromantic prose, the story of Gatsby's hopeless love for Daisy is told in a succession of eminently stageable big scenes: ecstatic assignations between doomed lovers and over-the-top confrontations with betrayed spouses. Scenes of high melodrama are carefully punctuated with grand set pieces--the all-night revelries at Gatsby's mansion, the drunken afternoon parties at New York apartments--that don't advance the plot but provide oodles of opportunities for local color. And as for Gatsby's most indelible gesture--his arms-outstretched yearning for the green light across the harbor, the symbol of his unattainable happiness--what could be more extravagantly operatic? Puccini would have swooned with envy.

Harbison, alas, is no Puccini. He's a fine composer, but he has no detectable gift for drama. I don't know why he made the fatal decision to write the libretto himself. He seems to have gone about it by simply reading through the novel and underlining every famous bit he didn't dare leave out. So with clockwork predictability Gatsby calls everybody "old sport"; Daisy's horrible husband, Tom Buchanan, laments the imminent fall of civilization; the shadowy old gangster Wolfsheim shows off his sinister cufflinks ("Finest specimens of human molars"--odd that nobody wonders where he got them); and Nick Carraway winds it all up with his mysterious rhapsody, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

This slavishly faithful greatest-hits approach means that the onstage action lurches abruptly from one obligatory scene to the next. Lots of crucial elements in the story are changed, left out, or covered over with ineptly invented bridge material. Some of the alterations are trivial, but they're still baffling. Nick sells bonds in the novel, but in the opera he sells stocks. OK, big deal--but why? Surely Harbison didn't think the word was harder to sing. Was he worried that bonds were too esoteric as a concept for the average operagoer? Much more serious--catastrophic, in fact--was his decision to obliterate any suspense about Gatsby himself. In the novel it's never altogether clear where Gatsby gets his money or what exactly his relationship to Wolfsheim is. Harbison blows off the whole issue by inventing an absurd scene in which Wolfsheim crashes one of Gatsby's parties to consult on some urgent gangland crisis. "Philadelphia wants to cash in its chips," I think he said, though it must have been a false alarm since it was never mentioned again.

Harbison's self-sabotage turns Gatsby into a fatally uninteresting figure. From beginning to end, he's nothing more than a gauche bootlegger who throws a lot of big parties. And since he has no interior life, his beloved Daisy dwindles from a romantic ideal to some airheaded society babe he used to have a thing for. What on earth is the point? Take away Gatsby's absurd but desperate passion, his naivete, his helpless, nose-to-the-glass sense of being a midwestern hick masquerading among eastern sophisicates and who would ever think to call him "great"?

In the old days you could count on the music to supply the answer. That's really the justification for traditional opera as a form--the music creates the radiant flow of life missing from the cardboard imbecilities of the average operatic plot. And I'll give Harbison this much: his score is quite interesting. It's complex, challenging, and richly crafted, and it reflects a profound study of period music--it contains countless echoes of the Jazz Age, fox-trots and Charlestons and tangos in an incessant glittery uproar. The problem is that his witty pastiches, including a couple of superbly convincing Tin Pan Alley songs, are woven into a much denser, cacophonous chromaticism. The dominant sound of the orchestra is a driving, harsh, near-dissonant clamor punctuated by horns, sirens, buzzers, and whistles. All the vocal parts, meanwhile, consist of unmelodic post-Schoenbergian caterwauling. There's not one memorable aria, not even a catchy tune. I'll grant that the effect is sometimes quite powerful; it seems to suggest a doom-laden industrial energy underneath the jazzy surface. But it's also awfully depressing--and fearsomely dull to have to listen to at any length.

But that's the way it goes with opera these days. Somewhere contemporary composers got the idea that operas need to be seamless exercises in modernist astringency and that any gesture toward pleasing an audience counts as a sign of weakness. About midway through Gatsby I got the feeling that Harbison's main aesthetic goal was to ensure that nothing in the score reminded anybody of Broadway. But what would be so wrong with a Gatsby that drew on the vitality of popular song? After all, it's set in one of the richest periods of American vernacular music. There's no reason it has to sound like a graduate seminar in harmonic theory.

Given such a deliberately strident and unlikable score, I probably shouldn't complain too much about what the singers do with it. But I'm obliged to say that several people in the Lyric cast--mostly replacements for the big names who left after New York--are out of their depth. The general level of performance, at least the night I was there, is barely passable for a major opera house. Russell Braun was blustering and wooden as Nick. Patricia Risley's Jordan Baker was ineptly mannered, and she spent so much time flouncing saucily I thought she'd dislocate a hip. Alicia Berneche's Daisy was blankly passive. All of them sang with considerable strain and often failed to make themselves heard above the orchestra. Jennifer Dudley was much better as Tom Buchanan's doomed mistress Myrtle, because she has a strong, lovely voice and because she threw herself into her performance with absurd abandon: she came off as an overwired lap dancer, but in this context any erotic charge was welcome.

As for Jerry Hadley in the title role--I don't believe physical appearance should be the decisive factor in opera casting. Hadley's a fine singer and is essentially alone in this production in being able to handle Harbison's score with apparent ease. But he isn't Gatsby. Not for one nanosecond did I believe he was Fitzgerald's "elegant young roughneck...whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd" (a line that shows up in the libretto, with the word "young" discreetly omitted). In fact, you'd swear he was playing Wolfsheim: he strolls around the stage with the relaxed air of a Mafia don in retirement, whose only worry in life is a dogleg on the back nine.

If you have a hankering to go to the Lyric, you'd be infinitely better off at the other production running this month: Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. It's no masterpiece. In fact, it's open to almost as many objections as Gatsby, but not one of them is about anything that counts.

The libretto is creaky and absurd. Pushkin's classic story of a gambler who loses his sanity in a card game rigged by the devil is told in a string of lurid horror-movie tableaux, punctuated by interminable expository arias and interrupted by shameless filler. No matter how close doom comes, there's always time for another drinking song or a pastoral dance with shepherds and sheep--at one point Tchaikovsky is so desperate to get out of a scene that he announces the imminent arrival of Catherine the Great. It's tough to believe that this nonsense could have been written as late as 1890, long after Verdi and Wagner had elevated opera to a form worthy to stand beside the best of ancient Greek or Elizabethan drama. Tchaikovsky works as though he's back in the primordial days of operatic hackwork, when audiences would stand for any idiocy for the sake of a decent song.

The Lyric production makes a halfhearted attempt to elevate the proceedings with a big, serious concept: the action is staged as though it's all inside the disintegrating mind of the hero. This means an extravagantly distorted set--a cross between an M.C. Escher print and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari--that includes a sinister black hole in the back wall and weird death's-head angels looming from the rafters. There's no doubt it has an impact--there was a kind of collective shiver in the audience when the curtain went up. Unfortunately the designers couldn't leave well enough alone and started tossing in a lot of chic visual allusions to protogoth painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Bacon; it's almost as though our hero Ghermann is flipping through art magazines between card games. That and the tony monochrome color palette ultimately give the production about as much psychological resonance as a Calvin Klein perfume ad. Still, it retains a certain shoddy power until the ridiculous final scene, when the gambling den is mocked up to look like a Harrah's casino in hell, with billows of red smoke wreathing the card tables and heaps of skeletons spilling out of the ventilating system. In the lobby afterward I heard a couple of people say that it was an allusion to the Holocaust, but I'm going to give the Lyric the benefit of the doubt and call the resemblance unintentional--otherwise the pretentiousness level would soar from the harmlessly foolish to the grotesquely unearned.

But what matters with this opera is that it contains a lot of Tchaikovsky's most gorgeous music, which the Lyric cast sings spectacularly. There isn't a single weak performance. The quality of their work is so high that it seems a shame to single anybody out, but I was particularly struck by Katarina Dalayman as the doomed heroine Lisa. A couple of years ago I heard her do an excellent recital of Sibelius songs, with just the right measure of darkly brooding poetry, but I had no idea she could be as exhilaratingly theatrical as she is here. Another surprise was the Lyric orchestra, which turned in an uncharacteristically strong and assured performance under the baton of the new music director, Andrew Davis--a pleasant omen for seasons to come. And then there's Vladimir Galouzine as Ghermann; the night I saw him he was pretty close to perfect. The role is a long one--the longest tenor part in Russian opera--but he tore through it with note-perfect clarity and sweetly lyrical ease. I swear he could have sung the entire opera over again without breaking a sweat. A performance like this one will do just fine till something better comes along.