Ensemble Parallèle's The Great Gatsby: Part 1

Julienne Walker, Jason Detwiler, Marco Pannucio. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Last year Ensemble Parallèle staged a production of Phillip Glass' Orphée which was a triumph of imagination, creativity and execution by the small opera company. This year they pulled it off again, with an almost audaciously ambitious production of The Great Gatsby, John Harbison's opera originally commissioned by the Met and presented here in a re-orchestration by Ensemble Parallèle's own Jacques Desjardin, with Harbison's approval.

Though Desjardin reduced the original score from 80 instruments to 30, and by any measure E.P. is still a small company, what they've put on the stage is a full-blown realization of Harbison's opera which looks fantastic and features a very strong cast.  As Gatsby, tenor Marco Panuccio managed to convey the character's surface confidence and underlying insecurity with exceptional smoothness. His duet with Susannah Biller's Daisy at the end of the first act was the highlight of the opera, with both singers conveying a potent desire for each other. Vocally, Biller, a current Adler Fellow, is the biggest presence onstage, strongly reminiscent of Rene Zellwegger's Roxy Hart in the film Chicago. As Daisy's husband Tom Buchanan, tenor Dan Snyder lent his strong voice and imposing physicality to a memorable performance oozing barely contained menace. Of all the performances, his was the most intriguing from a dramatic perspective. Mezzo Julienne Walker was fine as Jordan Baker, but I'm not sure the young singer knows how much stage-presence she actually possesses- if she turned it up a bit, Biller would have more competition and a stronger dynamic between the two would have made their strong pairing even better.

In the smaller but significant roles of George and Myrtle Wilson, bass Bojan Knezevic and mezzo Erin Neff gave two of the strongest performances of the night- and somewhat oddly, their characters have some of the opera's best material.

Jason Detwiler's Nick Carraway was problematic, not because of anything on the part of the singer, whose performance was fine, but the character who is the conscience of Fitzgerald's novel is hardly more than a cipher in Harbison's opera- and while on the whole I found the opera to be musically engaging and was frequently captivated by its jazz-infused score full of the energy and uncertainty of the U.S. in the 1920's, without Carraway's voice to center it the characters lack depth and this undermines the whole. 

Susannah Biller.  Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo   

When Panuccio sings "I'm Gatsby" to the unknowing Carraway at a party, nothing earning him the epithet " The Great" ever follows. The audience's only clue that Gatsby might be more than he seems comes toward the end when Carraway delivers the line (lifted straight from the novel), "you're better than the whole bunch." We're told this, but never shown, and if the audience is to take the opera on its own merit, apart from the novel, it leaves a gaping hole in the development of its three main characters, unless we're meant to see them little more than shallow figures lost in a haze of jazz, booze and cigarettes.

In the end, it's really only the Smiths, strangely enough, and perhaps because their desires and needs are the simplest and most obvious, who come close to being fully realized.  The choice to remove Carraway's conscience at the center of the story would be fine if there were more in the libretto shifting these portrayals to the singers, or with a greater use of motives in the music (perhaps it's there and I just didn't listen carefully enough on hearing it for the first time), but there's not enough for them to work with to make them fully developed. Unless of course that's Harbison's point. Discuss.

On the other hand, condensed to ten scenes in two acts and effectively restructuring the narrative to include the most important scenes from the novel, Harbison has done an effective job of rendering the story, and especially the atmosphere of Gatsby, into an opera.

The production team Ensemble Parallèle brought together for this did a fantastic job, especially the exceptional set designs and lighting by Matthew Antaky and the marvelously evocative video work by Austin Forbord, which really is as good as, or better than many recent productions by San Francisco Opera. How they accomplish this is somewhat of a miracle. The costumes by Christine Crook were perfect and there was much to admire in the choreography by Tom Segal.

Conductor Nicole Paiement worked hard to keep a lot of competing elements on track- the orchestra, a jazz band on stage, a dancing chorus, and of course the singers. Most of the time it worked, especially in the party scenes which were exuberantly staged, but the first act's quartet went off the rails  pretty quickly and sometimes the taut pace sounded a bit cacophonous.

Director Brian Staufenbiel's work is impressive, with the exception of some distracting "stand and deliver" moments when the singers directly face the audience instead of to whom they're singing and there's the jarring misstep of having Gatsby rise from the dead to get into his coffin while onstage.

Reader, you may have noticed most of the characters who populated this narrative in the past have lately disappeared,  but indeed they are still around (some, at least). As are their cuckolds, their relations, and their strange and often malevolent behaviors. And last night there we were, all together in that warm and crowded theater, crashing into each other like the cars driven by drunken guests leaving one of Gatsby's parties. Part 2 of this post, if I write it, will be about the opera that unfolded off on the stage.  

Biller, Parnuccio. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

It's a small town, old sport- and perhaps I'm Gatsby.