Harbison’s The Great Gatsby: Could It Be Even Better?

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Ryan Turner leads the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music in The Great Gatsby, Gordon Gietz as Gatsby. Photo by Hilary Scott.
Ryan Turner leads the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music in The Great Gatsby, Gordon Gietz as Gatsby. Photo by Hilary Scott.

The Great Gatsby
Music by John Harbison
Tanglewood, Ozawa Hall: July 11, 2013

Gordon Gietz – Jay Gatsby
Devon Guthrie – Daisy Buchanan
Alex Richardson – Tom Buchanan
David Kravitz – Nick Carraway
Krista River – Jordan Baker
David Cushing – George Wilson
Katherine Growdon – Myrtle Wilson
Charles Blandy – Radio Singer
Lynn Torgove – Tango Singer
James Maddalena – Meyer Wolfshiem
Donald Wilkinson – Henry Gatz
Dana Whiteside – Minister
with the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music
Ryan Turner – conductor

Wagner, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Boito, Janáček, Schoenberg, Berg, and Tippett and Debussy all composed operas to their own libretti (or adaptations of spoken dramas). Now add the name of Harbison. While waiting for permission to compose an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Harbison began composing anyway. By the time it was appropriate to look for a librettist, too much music had already been written and Harbison took hold on that function himself. The result reflects the composer’s concept of the drama in its broad outlines (the choice of scenes, pacing of the story) and its minute details (the word-by-word unfolding, the rhythms and inflections of each character). Although Harbison had an early history as a poet, the libretto struck me as having a prose-like quality, sometimes quoting the novel verbatim and often sounding like it. The conversational tone brings verisimilitude but sometimes also a certain flatness that may illustrate the directionlessness of the characters’ existence, but can seem oddly out of place in an opera.

Gatsby is no domestic melodrama. Fitzgerald’s novel aspires to the condition of high tragedy; is this then a tragic opera? Yes and no; tragedy, to me, means that you get to experience on a gut level the full set of contradictions and aspirations of the protagonist even as you clearly see all the conditions for disaster fall into place. In this opera, the second part of that formula holds, but the first does not. Harbison’s orchestra maintains ironic distance from the action; characters are all viewed through the orchestra’s critical lens. While Daisy seems the most sympathetic, and Tom the most vividly composed vocal character, Gatsby is less well-defined, not so much enigmatic as pallid. His false persona mutes his passion, even for Daisy, and their romantic statements are expressed through materialist metaphors (e.g. his collection of shirts) which makes them seem pathetic and misguided. The small roles of George, Myrtle, and Wolfshiem are all more vivid (and more vividly performed).

Harbison’s musical concept is contrapuntal and multi-layered; inspirations included Mozart and Berg (excellent models). Like Berg in Wozzeck, Harbison includes his own vernacular-style material: six songs modeled on popular hits of the ‘20’s. (After completing the opera he composed eight more to create a collection of Gatsby songs; the lyrics in the opera (and for the additional songs) were written by Murray Horowitz.) From the reactions I heard to the opera, these 20’s-style pieces offered the primary appeal; one person said “I was doing the Charleston in my seat.” But unlike Wozzeck, the songs were uncanny duplications of the original style and sound of 20’s pop tunes; in Wozzeck, the materials are brilliantly deformed to reflect the nature of ordinary people singing in ordinary circumstances which might include distortions owing to drunkenness or psychological stress. In Gatsby the songs are offered by a professional stage band playing and singing at Gatsby’s parties. They are intended to offer ironic counterpoint to the music of the unfolding drama of Tom and Daisy, Nick, Jordan, George, Myrtle, and Jay himself, which flows around and under these popular-style insertions.

John Harbison. Photo by Katrin Talbot.
John Harbison. Photo by Katrin Talbot.

Also as in Wozzeck, Harbison’s orchestra keeps up a running commentary that casts critical light on the actions and feelings of the characters and which bridges the gaps between scenes with continuous transition music. The dialectic of musical materials effectively embodies the primary dynamic of the narrative: forward motion (and eventually backward motion) versus stasis. The hedonism and shallowness of the party music expresses the party-goers’ wish for the annihilation of time, for a freezing of the moment of pleasure, an unwillingness to go home or go to sleep, a belief in the endlessness of pleasure and of the bounty of their host (despite the universal suspicions about his character and the source of his wealth); this impulse toward sensual immediacy is vividly captured in Daisy’s late-night suggestion that they all drive to the city at the end of Act II, scene 2. The counterpoint to this fantasy of stasis is music that literally incorporates motion, primarily in the form of automobile rides, which pervades the opera and has fateful consequences.

The score generally emphasizes forward motion—it is filled with propulsive rhythms suggesting the inevitable passage of time, the movement of history, regret for the unrecoverable past, the inevitability of future consequences for present circumstances (vividly suggested by the figure of Wolfshiem). There are the rhythms of motor travel, complete with Stutz Bearcat horn blasts (“aougha”, Act I scene 4); of train whistles (three horns playing a repeated diminished triad in the beginning of the final scene); and the rolling motion of oars and waves concluding the opera under and around Nick’s final soliloquy (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”) Such rhythms assist in the sense of inevitable catastrophe, but when it arrives, the shock feels muted. To be brutally honest, I didn’t care enough about Gatsby to be shocked by his death; I was more upset by Myrtle’s off-stage demise. (Myrtle was another character whose small part was vividly characterized both by her music and the convincing performance by Katherin Growdon.)

The melodic material for the characters’ voices was overshadowed by the popular tunes. Even the longer soliloquys (Gatsby has two: Act I, scene 3, and Act II, scene 1) have vocal lines that seem closer to recitative than aria, and produced few memorable melodic phrases. (Recitatives can be memorable, for example, Iago’s “Credo” [Otello, Act II].) Interestingly, I found the music for Daisy and Tom the most lyrically engaging; Daisy’s waltz in scene 1, again working with vernacular references, succinctly displays her naïve, sentimental and somewhat shallow personality. Tom, who has no capacity for self-reflection, does not get any soliloquys, but possibly owing to the powerful and characterful performance offered by tenor Alex Richardson, he projected a vivid personality in all of his scenes; his brutality and self-righteousness seemed the polar opposite of the pop-culture ideal embodied in the songs and in the shallow romanticism of Daisy and Gatsby; this was precisely reflected by his music. The brief appearances of George Wilson (David Cushing) and Meyer Wolfshiem (James Maddelena) were also powerfully characterized, also owing to superb performances; but it is precisely these characters who lack ambivalence, who stake a clear position vis-à-vis Gatsby. The main figures of Nick and Gatsby are struggling to work out who they are in relation to the other characters and to themselves; while this is dramatically necessary, it is musically problematic, in that neither of them seemed (on first hearing) to offer a clear musical profile or even a pattern of competing elements in their musical personalities. But further listening and possibly different casting might clarify the musical characterizations at which Harbison may have been aiming.

John Harbison at age 74 is one of American music’s most distinguished éminences grises. He has composed a very impressive corpus including six symphonies and counting. This opera should be a significant contribution to the handful of American operas that have shown some staying power. His musical style doesn’t fall into any convenient category, but commands a wide range of idioms fused into a highly dramatic, expressive, and often imagistic language that has become more and more clearly based in tonality but that includes every possibility that harmony (consonant and dissonant) has to offer. There is an aspect of his music that is self-aware and intellectual; there is always a clear structural strategy being played out, often by means of contrasting layers that interact dramatically to generate both feeling and form. All of this is the case with The Great Gatsby along with absolute mastery of orchestral timbre and texture. The composer’s decision to emulate Mozart’s triple-layer dance scene of Don Giovanni is justified by an absolutely virtuosic command of his materials, as well as by the dramatic situation. The orchestra is the primary vehicle for conveying not only mood and setting, but the character of dramatic situation, perhaps to a greater extent than the vocal lines. The transition from the first to second scenes of Act I is reminiscent of the scene change music in Das Rheingold when we move from the realm of the gods to Nibelheim; the clanking sounds of the Valley of Ashes might almost be the Nibelungen at their anvils. The introductory music to scene 3 conjures up the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock (a deceptive symbol of Gatsby’s fantasy of complete happiness): we hear what I would call an “American” theme, a flowing, hymn-like unison in the strings (a bit like the opening of Roy Harris’s Third Symphony). It seems to express the (hopeless) dreams of both Gatsby and Daisy, one yearning for an unattainable future, the other for an unrecoverable past.

The cast of The Great Gatsby bows following their performance on Thursday night. Photo by Hilary Scott.
The cast of The Great Gatsby bows following their performance on Thursday night. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Harbison’s orchestra and chorus are so good at telling the story that it often makes the characters’ voices feel secondary, especially in this unstaged version. It is interesting to me to learn that Harbison is thinking of promoting concert performances such as this one rather than fully staged versions, but I think that would be too bad. It may well be that with the orchestra in the pit and a more charismatic singing actor in the title role, along with sets and costumes, the burden of narrative motion would shift to the characters themselves. Scenes that seem to meander might take on color and nuance and the digressions would seem more integral to the dynamics of the drama.

Given the economics of opera production, this hope may be as illusory as Gatsby’s wealth. Emmanuel Church deserves great credit for finding the resources to assemble this talented cast, chorus, and orchestra under the efficient and beautifully controlled leadership of Ryan Turner. It was impressive that with a core of 30 players expanded to a very large orchestra, the playing was so unanimous and well-balanced. Is it too much to hope that a company like Glimmerglass or Santa Fe might take an interest in staging this newly trimmed version of an opera based on an iconic American fable composed by one of our most resourceful and literary composers? Or am I just hanging a green light on the end of my dock?

Lloyd Schwartz and Michael Miller on Harbison’s The Great Gatsby.

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