There hasn’t been a great American opera yet, though good cases have been made for Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby isn’t it, either, despite the fact that Harbison borrows his narrative from a great American novel. Reviews of Gatsby’s December 1999 premiere, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, were mixed–the Times was underwhelmed, the Chicago Tribune enthusiastic–and, though I’ve only heard a radio broadcast, I’m likewise ambivalent. Harbison writes accessible, mostly tonal music, and his subtle, imaginative orchestration excels at suggesting the main characters’ mental states. He can also pick from a broad vocabulary of idioms when he wants to evoke a certain place or time; jazzy dance numbers, for example, accompany the scenes at Gatsby’s parties, conjuring the restlessness and decadence of the Roaring Twenties. But Harbison has made a misstep in his adaptation that strips the story of much of its irony and flattens its characters: he places Gatsby at the center of the action, encouraging the audience to identify with him, whereas in Fitzgerald’s novel the enigmatic millionaire appears at a distance, as the object of Nick Carraway’s curious but skeptical gaze. Fortunately, another criticism of the Met premiere–that some of the arias bogged the story down–has since been addressed. Harbison trimmed the score, and the Lyric will perform this revised version. Tenor Jerry Hadley, who sang ardently if not entirely accurately in New York, reprises the title role, but much of the rest of the cast has changed: Soprano Dawn Upshaw (Daisy Buchanan) and mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Myrtle Wilson) have bowed out, to be replaced by Alicia Berneche and Jennifer Dudley, respectively, both graduates of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. For the Chicago production, Patricia Risley is Jordan Baker, Russell Braun plays Nick Carraway, and a new conductor, David Stahl, directs the pit orchestra. Director Mark Lamos’s production team, however, responsible for the gilded ambience and sumptuous sets of the New York show, remains intact. Friday and Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244. The Great Gatsby is scheduled to close on November 3.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.