The Rich Are Different: They Can Sing
by Zachary Woolfe (New York Times) — One thing that can be said for John Harbison, the composer of an operatic version of “The Great Gatsby” that was revived in concert at Tanglewood on Thursday, is that he was well ahead of the current “Gatsby” craze.
Decades before Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic, fabulous film adaptation, Mr. Harbison’s “Gatsby” had its roots in a 1985 concert work, “Remembering Gatsby,” which was repurposed as the overture when the full opera had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999.
“Gatsby,” commissioned by the Met in honor of James Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company, was years in the making, but it lacked the rounds of workshops that are generally used to buff an opera into sleeker shape. As Mr. Harbison writes in the Tanglewood program, opening night in New York was the work’s first complete run-through.
It is understandable, then, that “The Great Gatsby” had sweetness but was unwieldy and unfocused at the Met. While the opera featured some lovely performances — including the mezzo-sopranos Susan Graham as the sporty Jordan Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in her house debut, as an earthy, ill-fated Myrtle Wilson — it seemed more a noble, flawed effort than a prime candidate for the repertory. After a Met revival in 2002, it was performed nowhere for a decade.
Like some other recent operas too grand to be revived in their original forms — John Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles,” another 1990s Met commission, for one — Mr. Harbison’s work has found a new lease on life in a reduced orchestration first performed last year and tailor-made for colleges and small companies. But the version played at Tanglewood by the venerable Boston ensemble Emmanuel Music in honor of Mr. Harbison’s 75th birthday (coming up in December) was the big, beefy one heard at the Met, minus a few violins and with some revisions.
What little difference 14 years can make.
Mr. Harbison’s “Gatsby,” shorn of a full production’s visual flair and forced to rise or fall solely on the strength of its score and performers, remains slack and bloodless, occasionally toe tapping but never heart rending.
The opera’s two acts are organized into 10 scenes — Mr. Harbison also wrote the libretto — that pass politely through most of the novel’s major plot points and classic lines. Gatsby’s shirt-tossing? Check. “Orgastic future”? Check, though the monologue featuring that famous line has fragmented Fitzgerald’s famed final page into incomprehensibility.
But there’s no fragrance, no tension — not even in the climactic Plaza Hotel confrontation. With Nick Carraway, the observer of all this wealth and privilege, transferred from narrator to supporting player, Gatsby is forced to explain himself and the import of his story in excessively literal arias. (“And she lives there across the bay, by the green light that haunts my dreams.”)
While Mr. Harbison clearly reveled in writing pseudo-1920s pop songs that play on the radio and at Gatsby’s parties, the work goes to that well far too often. And those pleasantly jazzy interludes inadvertently emphasize that most of the score lacks their energy. On the whole, it’s a smoothly constructed iteration of anodyne late-20th-century Establishment Classical Music, not committed enough either to its lyricism or to its dissonance.
There is an intriguing hint near the end of a more surreal, original path Mr. Harbison might have taken through this familiar material. The music pulsates eerily as Nick sings about a childhood train trip, a passage of haunting ambiguity that is barely suggested in the book. But the moment swiftly passes.
While the Emmanuel Music orchestra, led by its artistic director, Ryan Turner, was lively, Ozawa Hall, so wonderful for chamber music, felt acoustically overwhelmed and blurred by the large forces onstage on Thursday. Lacking strong characters and saddled with vocal lines hovering uncomfortably between tunefulness and expressionism, the mostly young cast was hard pressed to make much impact. As the heroine, the soprano Devon Guthrie was a faint Daisy, and the mezzo-soprano Krista River was not nearly strong enough a voice or presence for Jordan.
The men fared better. The tenor Alex Richardson, compelling, even sympathetic, as Daisy’s jocular, ignorant husband, Tom Buchanan; the tenor Gordon Gietz a refined Gatsby; the baritone David Kravitz an amiable Nick. David Cushing made the strongest impression in the tiny role of George Wilson, singing with a plush bass and intense power.
The one bit of truly luxurious casting was the distinguished baritone James Maddalena as the malignant mobster Meyer Wolfsheim, a potentially juicy role criminally underdrawn by Mr. Harbison but treated by Mr. Maddalena with his customary clarity and sensitivity.