Too-Tame Gatsby Disappoints

The Great Gatsby is the great American modern novel-the book that expressed more vividly than any other what it has meant to be alive in the 20th century in a country where hope springs forever and disillusionment is just around the corner. As surely as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” captured the causes and effects of breakdown in the Old World, the sardonic mooniness, pulpy plot and narrative breathlessness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel captured the nature of breakdown in the New World, a continent where tragedy can never rise above melodrama, where a country’s heedless energy has a way of turning the worst events into nothing more permanent than yesterday’s tabloid headlines.

As I listened to James Levine conducting the overture of John Harbison’s new opera The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night, I felt my juices flowing as I hadn’t felt at a new opera within memory. Clangorous, brooding chords clashed dissonantly against one another, giving way to music that was grounded in an edgy scattering of rhythms, the whole thing dissolving into a not-quite-familiar 1920’s tune that curled wistfully in the air. Mr. Harbison, whose polytonal, lyrically generous compositions in a variety of forms I have admired, had spoken to the press about his long-held dreams of turning Fitzgerald’s novel into an opera. At once, his grasp of its nervous, bittersweet ambience of promise and despair was powerfully evident.

When the curtain opened to give us Nick Carraway’s arrival in the Buchanans’ mansion in East Egg to meet Tom and Daisy and their languorous friend Jordan Baker, Mr. Harbison’s eerily diaphanous music enhanced the stage’s-and Fitzgerald’s-vision of “an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.” Here seemed to be that rare achievement for a contemporary American opera-a full-blown score that was entirely itself, music of immediate atmosphere and dramatic purpose, sensitively but not slavishly attuned to the material. My admiration for Mr. Harbison leaped when, as the events snaked into the Wilsons’ garage under the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and then into the first of Gatsby’s parties, the tense sophistication of the score’s tightly wrought high modernism relaxed into sweet and snappy jazz-age schmaltz that was entirely of the composer’s invention and-as telling bits of pastiche-on a par with the best of Kurt Weill.

This Gatsby , with elegantly spare sets by Michael Yeargan, gold-and-silver lighting by Duane Schuler, and witty, vivid costumes by Jane Greenwood, was good to look at-though, for once, I yearned for a bit more Zeffirelli-style opulence in the party scenes. For the most part, the principals were attractively right. As Daisy, Dawn Upshaw used her crystalline soprano to brittle and beguiling effect, even though her allure was more that of the girl-next-door than that of a dangerously delicate Southern deb. The burnished baritone of Dwayne Croft’s Nick gave the proceedings a necessary moral center. Susan Graham’s Jordan may have been a shade too wholesome to bring out the golfer’s amoral allure, but whenever her glamorous, silky mezzo rubbed up against Ms. Upshaw’s soprano, the music took flight. Mark Baker was appropriately loud and bullish as Tom. And Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in her Met debut, seemed to be having great slatternly fun as the garage mechanic’s pent-up wife, Myrtle Wilson.

Why then, with so much first-rate American talent on hand, did this Gatsby become such a chore to sit through? For one thing, it lacked a Gatsby. Offhand, I can’t think of another American tenor who has the experience and ardor that Jerry Hadley has, but, at least on opening night, he had all the charisma of a bond salesman. Youthful of face, though broadening of figure, Mr. Hadley has always worn the air of the boy who won’t quite grow up. This may have been the quality that made him seem ideal for the hopelessly naïve Gatsby. But there is no underlying melancholy in Mr. Hadley’s relentlessly bright makeup, nothing to suggest the demons that, as Nick speculates, “preyed” on him. Indeed, admiring the casual, clean-cut elegance of Mr. Croft’s Nick, I thought that it was a fundamental miscalculation to have cast this antihero as a tenor in the first place. Gatsby is a man of shadows who needs the darker hues of a baritone. Where is the tenor who would inspire people to speculate that he “killed a man once”?

It’s easy to underestimate the staying power of a new score heard once, but serious and thoughtful as it is, Gatsby ‘s music did not strike me as distinctively memorable. Curiously, in adapting an ensemble piece whose differences in manner among the characters are as sharply drawn as those in a Chekhov play, Mr. Harbison did not-with the exception of the brief, bluesy writing for Myrtle Wilson-try to illuminate their particularities with musical detail. Those doomy opening chords and their like recur too often, italicizing things in a way that is antithetical to the book’s curiously buoyant, ironic detachment. Fitzgerald achieved this, of course, by telling the story in retrospect through the voice of Nick Carraway-a device that, understandably, was not at Mr. Harbison’s disposal. Still, even so direct a medium as opera can muster a mood of musical irony-think of Britten’s Turn of the Screw -to create the tone of sensitive inquiry that elevates Fitzgerald’s sordid little tale beyond pulp.

Fundamentally, the disappointment of this Gatsby comes, I think, from a failure of nerve. Rather than transforming a literary masterpiece to new effect-as Verdi, for example, so ruthlessly did with Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor -Mr. Harbison’s libretto marches us right through the book, scene for scene, in the familiar order of events. (One way to establish ironic distance might have been to begin the opera with the story’s famous ending-Gatsby’s murder, by mistake.) By grounding us so thoroughly in the novel’s structure, the opera stays resolutely earthbound. We can see everything coming-and we’ve been there too many times before. In the end, Mr. Harbison’s Gatsby , for all its admirable musical achievements, is opera as Cliffs Notes.

-Charles Michener

Clooney Looks Back

In the official rock ‘n’ roll chronicles, “Come On-A My House,” Rosemary Clooney’s career-launching ersatz-Armenian folksong, is taken as emblematic of a 50’s white pop that was so fake and so corny it deserved to be run off the road by rock. That always sounded plausible to me-I reached the age of reason with the release of Beatles ’65 -but I confess to never actually having heard the tune until settling down with Concord Jazz’s recent two-CD Clooney retrospective, Songs From the Girl Singer: A Musical Autobiography , and its literary companion, Girl Singer: An Autobiography (Doubleday).

O.K., I love “Come On-A My House,” and the same goes for another ethnic farrago “Mambo Italiano.” Ms. Clooney had a real genius for investing the phoniest material with a delirious sensuality in addition to the perfect time and God-given pipes.

Unlike many such mixed-media packages, Girl Singer , the book and the album, work wonderfully together. Appended to a recording of Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” that she made eight years ago, we get a remarkably poised 1945 audition version that Ms. Clooney, age 16, and her sister Betty, age 13, laid down at Cincinnati’s WLW radio station. A year later, both girls were traveling the country with the Tony Pastor band, but it was Ms. Clooney who had emerged as the incipient star, on “Sooner or Later,” the second track on Girl Singer , striking a note of sultry wistfulness that lies somewhere between Ella Fitzgerald and the young Judy Garland.

In 1951, as she was carving out a niche as a solo singer in New York, Ms. Clooney met up with Mitch Miller and “Come On-A My House.” She hit the new decade running, from the 1954 duet “Sisters” with second-fiddle Betty, and the movie White Christmas, to the ’54 pop smash “Hey There,” and the torch song “How Will I Remember You” that she recorded in 1961, singing through the tears to arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle with whom she was ending a romance. She was soulmates with the crooning troika of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett, absorbing their easy swing into her own style. She hung out with Marlon Brando and Marlene Dietrich. And pre- and post-Ferrer, she had affairs with a bunch of the era’s lesser lights. “The famous men I didn’t sleep with remained my friends always,” she notes ruefully in the autobiography. Ms. Clooney was emotionally adrift after her marriage ended. Her disorienting regimen of uppers and downers led her in 1968 to the psych ward at Cedars-Sinai.

The Girl Singer album covers Ms. Clooney’s frantic 60’s and dispiriting early and mid 70’s (gigs where she could find them in order to put food on the table for her five kids) with an eloquent silence. Disk 2 picks up in 1977 when she began the enduring association with Concord Records that, little by little, has put her back on top, this time around as our finest female cabaret swinger.

In the 50’s, Ms. Clooney’s handsome, honest Irish features were glamour-girl material only by dint of the airbrush. These days, she’s more comfortable in her own skin even if there’s a lot more of it. All together, she’s more earthbound-her range has shrunk somewhat, the intonation and the vibrato aren’t what they used to be. But her expressive powers have only been deepened by a hard and full lived life. An affecting blue rasp has crept into that songbird voice. Accordingly, the second disk of Girl Singer is enlivened by cuts from superb 90’s albums like Demi-Centennial and Do You Miss New York? , including, from the latter, the Dave Frishberg title tune that has the intimate flavor of Ms. Clooney reading a page from her own book.

-Joseph Hooper

Too-Tame Gatsby  Disappoints