Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Ensemble Parallele's The Great Gatsby
Playing the non-singing part of the head butler at a 1920s Long Island estate (above) this last weekend in the Ensemble Parallele production of John Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby was great fun. It's my third production in a year with this interesting and intrepid troupe who do contemporary Grand Opera on a beer budget, brilliantly. The trilogy started with Philip Glass' Orphee last February and continued with Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts this summer.
The Boston-based composer John Harbison above right was present for the entire weekend run, hanging out mostly with Jacques Desjardins above left who reorchestrated the twelve-year-old opera to 30 instruments from close to 100. It was a skillful job, and I prefer the chamber version to the recording with full orchestra because the complex music sounds less muddy.
The reviews of the production pretty much reflected what I felt from day one, which was that the orchestral writing was interesting but the vocal lines were awful, a series of recitatives made up of awkward intervals that were difficult to sing and not particularly rewarding for either the performers or the audience. To make matters worse, Harbison also wrote a number of brand-new 1920s pop songs for an onstage band and singers for the two large party scenes that are so entertaining you wonder why he didn't just write the entire piece in that vernacular with ascetic, difficult recitatives as the seasoning.
The reviews were also unanimous in praising the production itself, which was a beautifully conceived piece of theatre. The cast was just about perfect, intelligent and great musicians besides, and it was a joy watching them work out their characters and the story amongst themselves during rehearsals.
For two of the most interesting accounts from the audience point of view, click here for Patrick Vaz and here for Axel Feldheim.