Ensemble Parallèle to present “The Great Gatsby”

Gatsby and Daisy.jpg

The musically complex world of The Great Gatsby

This coming weekend, February 10 through 12, sees the world premiere of Jacques Desjardins’ reorchestration of John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby, performed by the Bay Area’s most innovative and imaginative opera company, Ensemble Parallèle.

This past January, the National Opera Association awarded Ensemble Parallèle First Prize in the Professional Division of the Opera Production Competition for its 2011 production of Philip Glass’ Orphée, and this year for the first time Ensemble Parallèle joins the noteworthy arts organizations that receive funding from San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts. John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby is the most ambitious project that the Ensemble has achieved to date.

Harbison was commissioned to write The Great Gatsby in 1999 by the New York Metropolitan Opera to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the debut of its music director, James Levine. Harbison, an accomplished poet as well as one of the most prominent composers in the U.S., wrote the libretto as well as the music, using much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dialogue throughout.

After its New York run, the opera moved to Chicago’s Lyric Opera. It has not been performed since then due to the length of the opera, which runs over union performance limits for musicians, and the size of the orchestra, which includes a stage band and an off-stage “radio” band.

Intrepidly, the directors of Ensemble Parallèle approached Harbison with a proposal to reduce the 120-member orchestra to 30 members. In order to gain Harbison’s approval, composer and reorchestrator Jacques Desjardins was given the hair-raising task of resetting the party scene in the first act of the opera. The scene contains some of the opera’s most densely layered music: on stage is a jazz band and two singers—of jazz and tango—with a chorus chiming in here and there; in the pit is the orchestra creating the overall ambience of Harbison’s own music; on stage are the various sung dialogs between Gatsby and the other characters. It’s intricate music, not simply melodically but also harmonically, requiring many solutions to the problem of maintaining the orchestral color and fullness of the original.

In one instance Desjardins replaced the brass quartet that is essential to the opera’s jazz sound with a trumpet and trombone at the extreme tonal ends and filled in the middle tones with woodwinds. As challenging as it was, Desjardins was up to the task. His reorchestration garnered Harbison’s approval, so much so that Ensemble Parallèle’s creative team was able to convince Harbison to allow 30 minutes of cuts to his original score.

Overseeing the musical complexity is Maestra Nicole Paiement, whose precision and sensitivity to the musically radical and demanding has been well proven in the ensemble’s previous productions: operas such as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Virgil Thomson’s setting of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts.

Music is not the only innovation that Ensemble Parallèle has made. Stage Director and Production Designer Brian Staufenbiel moved the production into the 21st century by weaving video projections into traditional set design. Among the many startling set ideas is that of flooding the pit with blue light in order to create the impression of a swimming pool at the Gatsby’s mansion. In another scene, projections of rain on a front scrim layers the painted sets and a back scrim with back-projected images and light to create the sense of island haven for Gatsby and his wealthy, hedonistic friends. The design mirrors Harbison’s densely layered music.

At the heart of this production is a bevy of very fine young singers. In the title role is lyric tenor Marco Panuccio, who portrayed Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon for Lyric Opera of Chicago; soprano Susannah Biller, who sang Eurydice in Ensemble Parallèle’s spring 2011 production of Philip Glass’ Orphée, sings Daisy Buchanan. Biller is a graduate of the Merola Opera Program and San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellow Program.

The cast includes baritone Jason Detwiler, tenor Dan Snyder, baritone Bojan Knezevic, mezzo soprano Erin Neff and Julienne Walker.

Should be great.

—Jaime Robles 


Ensemble Parallèle presents John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby on Friday and Saturday, February 10 and 11, 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 12, 2 p.m. at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Novellus Theater, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. For information and tickets, visit www.ensembleparallele.com or call 415-978-ARTS (2787).

Photo: Tenor Mario Panuccio as the mysterious and wealthy Gatsby courts the object of his love, Daisy Buchanan, portrayed by soprano Susannah Biller. Photo by S. DiBartolomeo.