in: Reviews

December 10, 2015

Jay Gatsby Struts to Harbison’s Tune

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Opening scene: In the Buchanans’ home, Daisy and Jordan sit on sofa. Nick Carraway,
daisy’s cousin, front center, has just arrived from the Midwest (Semperoper photo)

Dresden, Germany—With extravagantly outsized sets, brilliant staging and an exceptional cast and orchestra, the premiere of Semperoper Dresden’s new production (and the first European run) of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, last Sunday, was greeted with multiple curtain calls, many individual bows, and a rare standing ovation. Visually stunning, the new production offers a fresh take on the opera, a work that portrays the clash of glittery romance with gritty reality as the story speeds to its tragic end.

The vivid set design by the late Johan Engels, who died last year soon after completing his conceptual plans for this production, immediately distinguishes Semperoper’s Gatsby. Massive furnishings and accessories serve as representation of the exaggeration and excess portrayed in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the Roaring Twenties. In the opening scene, a giant white velvet divan decorated by the languid figures of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker draped over its plush pillows immediately sets the tone. The telephone, symbolizing Tom Buchanan’s affair with the garage mechanic’s wife Myrtle Wilson, is the size of a refrigerator box, dominating stage left, while Tom’s animated conversations are mimed in magnified shadowbox behind a thin curtain. A pool-sized champagne glass plays a central role; in one of the lavish party scenes guests cavort across a giant piano keyboard. As Gatsby and Daisy become lost in their dream of rekindled love, the flowers onstage grow ever larger and more fantastic, until at last a single pink bloom looks as if it might envelop the lovers in a private sanctuary. The disorientingly playful quality is tinged with the macabre and overlaid with a noirish feel that creates foreboding unease even in the glamorous party scenes, reflecting the distorted lives of the characters as they propel toward doom, victims of their environment and times and selves.

Brilliant direction by Keith Warner ingeniously energizes the Dresden production, beginning with the decision to place narrator Nick Carraway front and center—sometimes more, sometimes less obtrusively—as trenchant observer of the unfolding story, capturing on notepad or typewriter the unraveling of his friends’ lives. As watcher and re-actor, he is easy to feel for as he responds to the action, helpless to intervene or influence. Nor does Warner flinch at depicting, luridly, some of the franker details only alluded to in earlier productions: Jordan’s overt sexuality, Tom’s aggressive brutality beneath the surface, the ghastly car accident that kills Myrtle, Gatsby’s murder in the pool.

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George Wilson in his garage in the “Valley of Ashes” (Semperoper image)

Semperoper’s casting offered solid singing and convincing characterizations across the board. In the title role, tenor Peter Lodahl was all swagger and confidence, wrapped in the voluptuous cloak of his extravagant delusions. Maria Bengtsson presented a sweetly affecting Daisy Buchanan in a clear and agile soprano, vividly portraying complexity of character from schoolgirl innocence to jaded and sardonic views of marriage and motherhood. Baritone Raymond Very’s hulking Tom Buchanan juxtaposed menace and rage with heart-wrenching tenderness at the moment he realizes his marriage is unraveling.

Mezzo Christina Bock was a mesmerizingly sexualized Jordan Baker, self-absorbed, aloof, detached from the lurid events around her and caring only about her golf match. Baritone John Chest as Nick, continuously onstage, records, in his role as Midwestern outsider, the collapsing world of debauched New York high society. The earthy American soprano Angel Blue brought a blues singer’s color to her role as Myrtle Wilson, while baritone Lester Lynch brought Wozzeckian tragedy to George Wilson, starkly trapped in his world of poverty and despair. Strong performances were also given by tenor Aaron Pegram as band vocalist, baritone Matthias Henneberg as Meyer Wolfsheim, and baritone Tilmann Ronnebeck as the bereaved Henry Gatz.

Much has been written about Harbison’s ingenious blending of his own tonal/dissonant vocabulary with authentic ‘20s-styled jazz that forms the wallpaper backdrop of the opera (all newly composed by Harbison in spot-on mimicry of period popular song, lyrics by Murray Horwitz). But what has always made the musical-dramatic structure of the opera so compelling is the pervasiveness of almost Wagnerian leitmotifs, where thematic material is manipulated to reveal psychological connections between and among characters and events. Under the baton of Wayne Marshall, the Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden turned in a performance of high color, pace, and nuance. After revisions to the score following performances in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Aspen and Tanglewood, Semperoper’s production is the first to represent the composer’s final concept fully staged with large orchestra.

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Myrtle Wilson run over by Gatsby’s car L-R: George, Myrtle, Tom, Nick (Semperoper image)

John Harbison’s Great Gatsby receives six performances altogether at Semperoper, through December 21st. Semperoper’s webpage has lots of excellent production shots and link for ticket purchase here.

Sarah Schaffer, an Emmanuel Music/John Harbison colleague, sent this report at BMInt’s request.

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