Tuesday, July 16, 2013

John Harbison’s, The Great Gatsby, in Tanglewood Debut Concert Performance

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 the performance 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 for the production 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 the movie version (though I can't claim to have seen the latest, Baz Luhrmann, edition. 

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 for the piece 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 Fitzgerald 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. There's abundant evidence of his understanding of the American literature of the Jazz Age in general, and Fitzgerald in particular, in this work.

The music is scored for a big, lush orchestra, plus banjo, saxophone, and drums for the pop numbers, all of which are original to the opera, and with original lyrics by Murray Horwitz. The interplay of instrumental emotion from operatic to foxtrot is one of the most compelling aspects of the work. The effect of Nick and Jordan conversing operatically in the foreground while Gatsby's party strums and beats along underneath works well, and pulls listeners between these two opposite forces, heightening the tension.

Harbison's orchestration is full of non-musical texture: automobiles and 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 effect of this concert performance is 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.

Harbison, the interpreter of Fitzgerald, used dialog from the novel as his libretto, and for the many of us who've read and loved Gatsby, this was good news—the conversations are nearly poetic. But the dialog also carries the entire plot of the opera, and the expository quality of the lyrics 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 aria. And there really aren't the sort of romantic arias—the 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 many great operas their transcendent quality, and they are notably missing from Gatsby. 

Instead, the opera is talky like baroque recitativenot the impetus for modern audiences to want to pay large sums of money to empathize and swoon at the Metropolitan Opera. I've got nothing against Handel's, Haydn's or Bach's great oratorios, but a whole opera of recitative feels tedious.

Just one more thing, really a question. (Spoiler alert, as if it mattered.) Do we need to see Wilson, the garage mechanic, husband of Myrtle, shoot Gatsby? In the novel, we come upon the dead body in the pool at dawn. We don't know who shot Gatsby, and there are several 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. John Harbison's musical life has included a long association with the Emmanuel Players, the BSO, and Tanglewood. This was an extraordinary undertaking and we felt well-rewarded to be there. 

P.S. This performance was also reviewed in The New York Times by Zachary Woolfe: The Rich Are Different: They Can Sing. Woolfe's conclusions might lead you to believe that we had seen different performances, but, in fact, we were in the same place at the same time. However, it's evident that we had different expectations for the evening and that we have different sensibilities. Woolfe is a "professional" reviewer and has the advantage of greater experience and knowledge. I share my opinions by writing reviews, but without the onus of the professional to pass some sort of larger judgement. It makes for an interesting comparison.

Performed Thursday, July 11, 2013
Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, by:
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)

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