Harbison’s Glowing Tribute to Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby”

United StatesUnited States  John Harbison, The Great Gatsby: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music, Tanglewood Festival, Lenox, Massachusetts. 11.7.2013 (CA)

Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music

Ryan Turner, artistic director and conductor

Gordon Gietz, tenor (Jay Gatsby)
Devon Guthrie, soprano (Daisy Buchanan)
Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano (Myrtle Wilson)
Krista River, mezzo-soprano (Jordan Baker)
Lynn Torgove, mezzo-soprano (Tango Singer)
Charles Blandy, tenor (Radio Singer)
Alex Richardson, tenor (Tom Buchanan)
David Kravitz, baritone (Nick Carraway)
James Maddalena, baritone (Meyer Wolfshiem)
Dana Whiteside, baritone (Minister)
David Cushing, bass (George Wilson)
Donald Wilkinson, bass (Henry Gatz)

Is The Great Gatsby a great opera? I can’t say, because I’ve only seen the concert performance presented in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood this past Thursday night. But it felt more like a Handel oratorio than a grand opera, which is probably a very good thing.

In fact, I enjoyed this performance—in a number of ways. Most obviously, the Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music and the soloists were wonderful—the playing confident and full of color, the singing strong and full of emotion in both chorus and solos, while conductor and artistic director Ryan Turner showed great understanding of the score and the story.

Remarkably, I felt as though we were really “seeing” Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan, and Tom behaving badly and ruining their lives, while Nick looks on and narrates, just as Fitzgerald intended. It was certainly more “real” than what I have seen on film (though I can’t claim to have seen the latest edition, from Baz Lurman).

It’s not an accident that this opera, even in the concert presentation, feels like the genuine article. If you had set out in 1995 to identify the best person to write it, you’d probably have picked John Harbison. As we learned during the pre-concert discussion (viewable from the BSO Media Center), one of Harbison’s inspirations was his father, who like Fitzgerald himself, was a member of the Triangle Club, Princeton’s musical-comedy group. Harbison’s uncle graduated from Princeton in Fitzgerald’s class, or what would have been his class had he graduated.

Harbison is something of a man of letters—Harvard B.A., Princeton M.A., professor at MIT, frequent lecturer, published critic. During the talk, he admitted to writing poetry as a young man. As a musician and composer, he’s always loved jazz and is considered an expert on the subject. In Gatsby, there’s abundant evidence of his understanding of the American literature of the Jazz Age in general, and Fitzgerald in particular.

The music is scored for a big, lush orchestra, plus banjo, saxophone, and drums for the pop numbers (all of which were created for the opera), and with original and very clever lyrics by Murray Horwitz. The interplay of instrumental emotion from operatic to foxtrot is one of the most compelling aspects. Often Nick and Jordan sing operatically—conversing—in the foreground, while Gatsby’s party strums and beats along just underneath. It seems right, and pulls listeners between these two opposite forces, heightening the tension.

Harbison’s orchestration is full of non-musical texture: automobiles, traffic, trains, city bustle, rain, and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock flashing its leitmotif. Gatsby’s frequent “old sport” refrain had its leitmotif, as well. So many elements come together and play off each other, but not so obviously as to feel heavy-handed. There is the sense of a skilled and experienced craftsman at work, enjoying the complexity without showing off.

The oratorio style was also handled with skill and subtlety. The characters were onstage only while singing, which meant they had entrances and exits. They wore period-like attire and sang to each other in a conversational style, with visible emotion. It all helped give the performance a dramatic feel.

There was much that was praiseworthy. But—and I almost hate to admit it—the evening ultimately fell short, though in ways that seem to plague almost all contemporary opera.

In interpreting Fitzgerald, Harbison used dialog from the novel as his libretto, and for those of us who’ve read and loved Gatsby (I suspect pretty much everyone in attendance) this was good news. The conversations are nearly poetic. But the dialog also carries the entire plot, and the lyrics’ expository quality is often awkward, especially for singing.

Also, the musical scene-painting is so wonderfully descriptive of time and place, and so remarkably evocative of the changing moods, that it leaves almost no room for arias. And there really aren’t the sort of romantic arias—confessions, love duets, angry declarations of self-worth or self-pity—that cause opera audiences to interrupt performances with applause. They are not a necessary ingredient of opera, but these moments of pure singing—so wonderful that even the plot stands still to listen—give the great operas their transcendent quality, and they are notably missing from Gatsby.

Instead, the opera is talky—the talky music like baroque recitative, not an impetus for modern audiences (for example) who might want to pay large sums of money to empathize and swoon at the Metropolitan Opera. I’ve got nothing against the great oratorios of Handel, Haydn or Bach, but a whole opera of recitative feels tedious.

And do we need to see Wilson—the garage mechanic and husband of Myrtle—actually shoot Gatsby? In the novel, the dead body is found in the pool at dawn—the killer unknown, among a number of suspects. More importantly, this ambiguity heightens the tragedy.

Nonetheless, and despite my reservations and misgivings, this is a worthy opera and it was a terrific performance; I was particularly impressed by the happy combination of musical forces. Harbison’s musical life has included a long association with the Emmanuel Players, the BSO, and Tanglewood, all making this an extraordinary undertaking.


Clay Andres