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Opera Review: Harbison's 'Great Gatsby' fails to engage; 'Tristan' soars

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

NEW YORK -- The old and the new converged last weekend, when the Met offered the final performance of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" -- a magnificent new production -- Saturday afternoon, to be followed by the world premiere of John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby," commissioned for the 25th anniversary of music director James Levine's house debut. The timing of the "Gatsby" premiere, however, coincides not with Levine's 1996 anniversary but with the year 2000. It will be broadcast live, in fact, on New Year's Day at 1:30 p.m. -- locally over WQED-FM.

While high hopes preceded "Gatsby" and last weekend brought out-of-town music lovers and critics from all over the country to catch these two events in close succession, it was "Tristan" that garnered most of the praise, while "Gatsby" was a sad disappointment.

"The Great Gatsby" was adapted by the composer from the classic American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harbison's libretto stays close to the original, adding song lyrics by Murray Horwitz for popular music designed to create a flavor of the flapper era. The Metropolitan Opera went all out, engaging a major theater director, Mark Lemos, to do the staging, colorful if somewhat minimalist sets designed by Michael Yeargan and a cast including some of today's top American singers. The sold-out opening night performance on Monday was a lavish affair, with tickets going at top prices and elaborate, expensive dinners for donors before and after.

With all this, however, "Gatsby" failed to live up to expectations, though on purely musical grounds, there's no question Harbison is one of today's better composers. This was immediately evident in the lively Overture and several orchestral interludes that will no doubt find their way into the concert hall as some sort of "Gatsby" symphonic suite.

Once the curtain went up, however, things quickly fizzled. The vocal writing is eminently singable but unmemorable, and there is no distinction for individual characterizations or different emotions. It's all pretty much the same, punctuated by some pop-style song and dance episodes that are perhaps the opera's most successful moments. Unfortunately, the totality is undramatic and dull. Even the penultimate scene, in which Gatsby is shot to death by the garageman George Wilson (who then shoots himself) is unprepared and unexciting.

More's the pity, for the cast -- with one crippling exception -- is uniformly excellent. Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan -- the wealthy socialite whose liaison with her old flame Gatsby is the cause of the final tragedy -- sings with angelic purity and subtle inflection of the words while personifying the quintessential '20s woman. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is the perfect foil as her friend, Jordan Baker, who pairs off for a while with the Buchanans' visitor from the Midwest, Nick Carraway. And baritone Dwayne Croft's Nick, in fact, is the strongest element in the show: He acted with virility and sympathy, vocalized with solid, unendingly resonant sound.

Heldentenor Mark Baker is similarly strong as Daisy's "hulking" husband, Tom, while lighter tenor Matthew Polenzani is a joy in his pop song episodes. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson makes an auspicious debut as Myrtle Wilson, taking focus in a seductive dance with Baker's Tom.

The weak link is in the title character. It might not have mattered that Jerry Hadley, once one of America's more likable lyric tenors, is at this point too middle-aged and too portly to fit the Robert Redford-type image of Gatsby. It does matter that he's been stretching his voice with heavier roles, that the sweetness and bloom are gone from his sound and that he has to resort to a forced, monochromatic projection that seldom goes below a forte level.

Subsequent performances of "Gatsby" are tomorrow and Dec. 29; Jan. 1, 4, 7, 12 and 15.

"Tristan und Isolde" turned out to offer everything that "Gatsby" failed to deliver. A cast that can uniformly be described as great (surely the best Wagnerian singers available today in every category); a production graced by Jürgen Rose's interesting and inventive sets and costumes, staged by Dieter Dorn and lit by Max Keller with clever ingenuity to make the best use of the physical girth of his lead singers; conducted -- at a very leisurely pace, entirely uncut -- by Levine, who is one of the few living conductors who could carry it off.

Ben Heppner's Tristan and Jane Eaglen's Isolde are two of the largest figures to be seen on any stage these days, but their voices are as big as their bodies, and they come through surprisingly credibly as lovers -- the silhouette backlighting giving them a primeval quality that intensifies their plight. More important, they can really sing their music. Eaglen starts out with a huge, clear soprano and closes the opera pouring out mounds of sound with the same ease she has shown from her first notes. Heppner equals her in the love duet and surpasses himself in Tristan's fiendishly difficult "ravings" in Act 3. Like everyone in the cast, their German is exemplary and clear.

But it doesn't stop there. René Pape steals the show as King Marke -- whose lengthy Act 2 monologue can be a bore, but here is a highlight of the evening. Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman is stunning in voice and demeanor as Brangäne, her dark mezzo-ish vocal quality contrasting beautifully with Eaglen's bright, pointed tones.

It was also nice to see some Pittsburgh connections: baritone Brian Davis (an opera center alumnus) in the brief role of Melot, not at all awed in the company of the big guys; and Gina Lapinski, an assistant stage director in a show that proves Wagner can be dramatically viable even with what might seem like insurmountable visual components.

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