Ensemble Parallèle Tackles Harbison’s Great Gatsby

John Harbison’s grand opera The Great Gatsby, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999, received its first production in a decade in a new chamber version created for San Francisco’s Ensemble Parallèle. Though founded by Nicole Paiement nearly 20 years ago, the ensemble has only recently turned its full attention to chamber productions of contemporary opera, filling a niche that Bay Area audiences are apparently very happy to explore.

This well-attended production of Gatsby, staged over three nights on the main stage at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, featured a slightly abridged version of the score (approximately half an hour was cut) in a newly commissioned re-orchestration by Jacques Desjardins. The original 80-piece orchestra was reduced to 30, including a stage band for party scenes. Before authorizing the chamber orchestration request, Harbison had asked Desjardins first to try his hand at scoring one of the large parties set at Gatsby’s estate.

Though only a short while ago I might have described Ensemble Parallèle as plucky, right now they’re actually flat-out audacious. Never mind their tight budgets and bare-bones administrative structure; somehow their productions have quickly become known as must-see events in town. In just the past two years, they have presented fully staged productions of Philip Glass’s Orphée with circus artists, a new chamber orchestration of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (in the abridged version) paired with a new composition by Luciano Chessa as a prelude. Prior to that, they presented the world premiere of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar; just announced for next season is Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata.

At the core of the ensemble are Paiement, a Bay Area new music dynamo who is the group’s conductor and artistic director, and her husband Brian Staufenbiel, who designs the productions and is the stage director. The casts are mostly drawn from singers with strong ties to the Bay Area, and while Ensemble Parallèle is not a repertory company, certain voices and faces become familiar from production to production. The company is a resident ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Paiement is director of the New Music Ensemble and of BluePrint, a new music series sponsored by the school.

Principals

L-R: Marco Panuccio (Gatsby), Susannah Biller (Daisy), Julienne Walker (Jordan), Jason Detwiler (Nick), Daniel Snyder (Tom)

It is explicitly part of Ensemble Parallèle’s goals to promote chamber opera as a way to make the opera-going experience more intimate, and also to give large-scale, large-budget works another life that remains true to the original intent but in a more easily presentable form. On these points, their new version of Gatsby was certainly successful. It wasn’t nearly as opulent as the original version I saw at the Met in 1999, but I didn’t feel that we lost out in this “translation,” as Desjardins says. The substantial and straightforward sets by Staufenbiel and scenic designer Matthew Antaky were enhanced by Austin Forbord’s video design, which included the Eckleburg billboard at the top of this post, watching over the proceedings.

Hearing and watching this music performed in a 700-seat hall naturally made for a more intimate experience than the Met, yet the music was still well-served. Though the performances were solid across the whole cast, special notice can be given to Susannah Biller, whose portrayal of Daisy Buchanan was expressively sung with gleaming, youthful energy.

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Nevertheless, the cast had to struggle with the challenges that are inherent in Harbison’s theatrical adaptation. The principal characters are not people we find sympathetic: in Act Two, when Gatsby and Tom push Daisy to the point of publicly rebuking her husband, shrieking, “You’re reVOLting!”, one can’t help but agree with her, and unfortunately his companions do not elicit much more warmth from the audience either. And while Harbison’s music often ingeniously evokes the Jazz Age without slipping into a feeling of pastiche, to my ears it interacts awkwardly with the libretto, in the setting of the text as well as the choice of texts that are musically emphasized.

Even so, I am grateful to Ensemble Parallèle for finding a novel way to bring this music to San Francisco’s ears and for allowing me a chance to revisit what I remembered of the opera from a dozen years ago. For those who are interested in hearing the work, the Met has released the recording of the January 2000 broadcast as a 3-CD set.

Fast Forward

This March features an explosion of new music activity in the Bay Area, starting with the 17th annual Other Minds Festival, three nights of concerts at the SF JCC’s Kanbar Hall that are already underway (March 1-3). Concurrent with that is BluePrint’s concert Anosmia at the Conservatory on March 3, as well as new-music choir Volti’s series of performances March 2–4. The San Francisco Symphony launches its American Mavericks Festival with five programs in Davies Symphony Hall on March 8, before taking it on tour to Ann Arbor and New York.

Back at the Conservatory, the Hot Air Music Festival (March 4), an eight-hour marathon concert in its third year, features one of two SF performances of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion this month; on March 23-25, San Francisco Lyric Opera teams up with Butoh-based physical theatre troupe Bad Unkl Sista to dramatize the story at ODC Dance Theatre.

ODC Dance Company is also premiering new music in the first program of their season, with composer/cellist Zoë Keating performing live with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra (5 performances, starting March 15). And the Kronos Quartet continues its three-year residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Fragile, an installation piece created with movement artists Eiko & Koma, also starting March 15.

Disclosure: I will be performing at the American Mavericks Festival, am the Artistic Advisor and often sing with Volti (though not in these concerts), and am employed by the Kronos Quartet. Gatsby production photos by Steve DiBartolomeo.

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