LET'S STIPULATE AT THE OUTSET: a novel is one thing, an opera quite another. This observation is irrelevant to comments on one or the other, but not to the subject at hand, for in my opinion the most absorbing thing about last night's performance of John Harbison's opera on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was precisely that: the adaptation of a great novel to the lyric stage. And the adaptation was entirely Harbison's, as I understand it: scenario, libretto, and music all conceived and executed by a single mind.
Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to an edition* of Fitzgerald's three great mature novels (Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon being the other two), suggests the method Harbison uses in his adaptation when he notes that
Each chapter consists of one or more dramatic scenes, sometimes with intervening passages of straight narration. The "scenic" method is one that Vitzgerald probably learned from Edith Wharton, who him turn learned it from Henry James…Harbison makes a very straightforward compression of the novel, choosing pivotal scenes for (mostly) ensemble portrayals and linking them with orchestral interludes whose dual purpose it is to move the action (often literally, by car, driving from Long Island to Manhattan) and to "portray," through instrumental music, an emotional response to Fitzgerald's novelistic purpose.
Two problems immediately arise here. One is general, and is suggested in those scare quotes around "portray": can instrumental music suggest the profundity and the vague richness of emotional and (dare I say) philosophical speculation of the kind The Great Gatsby attains? Only, I think, when said music can borrow the already present allusiveness audiences find in musical genres whose language and literature they are familiar with, and only when the music itself is composed with a masterly consistency of style and technique. It's not Harbison's fault that these qualities are lacking at the present cultural moment: and it's certainly possible that his opera will be able to draw on them in some future.
The other problem is specific to The Great Gatsby, which Cowley goes on to put
in the Jamesian tradition… having the story told by a single observer, who stands somewhat apart from the action and whose vision "frames" it for the reader. In this case the observer plays a special role. Although Nick Carraway doesn't save or ruin Gatsby, his personality in itself provides an essential comment on all the other characters.In the novel, Cowley suggests, "Nick stands for the older values that prevailed in the Middle West before the First World War"; the other characters "belong to their own brief era of confused and dissolving standards". Cowley's is an economist's construction of the novel; his introduction also deals with Fitzgerald's essentially straightforward relationship to money, and to Marxian positions on literary criticism. But economics is more than money and social class: it's a system of discussing value and "values" in more general and more pervasive terms than those centered merely on lucre.
And the success of Fitzgerald's novel, to me at least, is its way of propelling its surface brilliance and fascination — the brittle seductive opulence of its drives and desires — with an engine whose power is generated through the weight, the mass of entire generational and geocultural forces. One deft comment of Nick Carraway's, omitted from Harbison's opera, sums this up for me: he describes Jordan Baker taking a seat at the dinner table as if she were getting into bed. You don't know what this means, exactly, but you see it happen. The line makes you think of Noël Coward; it precisely defines the irony of Fitzgerald's style.
I think this important, as it distinguishes Fitzgerald from James, moves The Great Gatsby away from "the Jamesian tradition", whose complexity had threatened the utility of prose fiction as social commentary. The Great Gatsby is in the Austen-Flaubert-Chekhov tradition: "scenic," but ironic. It is for us twentieth-century Americans what Madame Bovary was for the late nineteenth-century French; it reveals the lassitude and debility and, finally, tragedy that follows a nation's lapse from those traditional values — call them moral if you like — that focus a community on practical means of meeting communal dangers.
It may be pointed out that an opera is after all only a night in a theater, singing and staging; one doesn't go to an opera for a disquisition on social or moral or economic justice. There are exceptions, of course; Le nozze di Figaro comes to mind: but it's never fair to mention Mozart in such a discussion; he's always the great exception proving the rule.
But the brooding, almost Wagnerian qualities of much of Harbison's writing in the orchestral interludes makes me suspect their "portrayals" reach toward these kinds of concerns. And among the most powerful of the purely instrumental pages in the score are those in the final interlude, "Day Through Night," moving toward Gatsby's funeral; and those in the epilogue, which finds Nick Carraway gazing out across the water toward the Buchanans's green light, contemplatively singing the magnificent final sentence of the novel, which completely seals the interpretation of The Great Gatsby as much more than a story of love, adultery, superciliousness, inevitable tragedy.
Harbison's vocal music persuades me less. The opera is high-pitched, and among the least convincing music is that for Daisy and Jordan — especially their duet (soon set within a quintet) expressing their reaction to the stifling summer heat. It's not just that the words, whether Fitzgerald's or Harbison's, get lost in the high tessitura: it's that the melodic contours follow some incomprehensible directive, neither tonal nor not, perhaps meant to express the result of the mind-numbing heat, but unfortunately not ultimately engaging this pair of ears.
I mentioned Wagner earlier: much of the opera's score lacks air, crispness, definition. "Endless melody" no longer convinces me of deep or distant vision; perhaps it never did. The lack of clear key relationships, of sections distinguishable from one another by key, tempo, and instrumentation, encourages this listener's mind to wander, and that's a danger when there are so many things in the otherwise faithful adaptation of this great book to contemplate.
I have no complaints about the reorchestration of Harbison's score, reduced by Jacques Desjardins from the original large orchestra with winds in threes to a smaller but still considerable one with pairs of woodwinds and French horns, single brass, and reduced strings. I've never heard this opera before; I don't know if other musical adaptation was involved. The style of the onstage dance orchestra seemed perfectly authentic to the period (the Roaring Twenties, of course).
Nicole Paiement conducted with the precision, the attention to detail, and the grip on the long line that I've come to expect from her. I've heard her conduct operas now by Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, and Virgil Thomson: in every case she works for the composer, not imposing interpretation but respecting the composer's style. Her orchestra played well.
Matthew Antaky's physical production was quite effective, with Austin Forbord's mood- and place-setting rear projections of still and moving images of the water and the iconic Valley of Ashes — how many today realize the extent of ash-heaps in the coal-burning time of steam heat and transportation? — and effective suggestions of opulence conveyed through careful lighting, colors, and properties. Christine Cook's costumes were elegant, evocative, and character-defining.
I liked Brian Staufenbiel's directing, too. Each character, with the possible exception of Meyer Wolfshiem, seemed to have stepped out from the pages of the novel, fully fleshed out, with complex pasts and present needs; and all of them, even Tom Buchanan, were ultimately sympathetic. The party scenes were handled well for the most part; much of Tom Segal's choreography seemed deft and authentic, though long freezes and slow motion in backgrounds sometimes made longer soliloquies awkward: the intimacy available only in large crowds, which Daisy (or was it Jordan) mentions at one point, wasn't always at hand when needed.
You see the principal cast in the photo above: all sang well, I thought, on pitch, clearly when tessitura allowed, and acted well, both individually and in relationship to one another: this seemed like a well-prepared, well-rehearsed repertory production.
*Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby; Tender is the Night; The Last Tycoon. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953