More on Harbison’s Gatsby

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John Harbison
John Harbison

My colleagues, Lloyd Schwartz and Larry Wallach, have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music’s performance of John Harbison’s third opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won’t attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison’s) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique. Both the Kenner and the Liebhaber came away eminently satisfied, after showering the composer, the singers, and the musicians with a heartfelt and loud standing ovation.

I missed the premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2001. I have heard that Gatsby was not nearly as well received back then, when it was twenty minutes or so longer. I have heard that the production was impaired by budgetary constraints and that the star singers who were engaged for it were not at their best. In his program essay, “‘The Great Gatsby’ Opera: Towards a ‘Final’ Version,” Harbison goes through the history of the work, beginning with its commission by James Levine, the Met premiere, concert works spun off from it, and later performances, including a chamber version. The essay is redolent of his regrets about the opera’s beginnings and implies that it is perhaps not quite finished even now. He makes one point that I consider somewhat dangerous, and I’d like to address it here. Since he included jazz songs in the flapper-era style and for that reason found it necessary to work with a specialist in Broadway lyrics, Murray Horwitz, he experienced something of a collision between two worlds. Horwitz and others were astonished that the opera would go straight from Harbison’s finished score to its premiere, without any “workshopping” or out-of-town tryouts. While the operatic practice is simply the result of tradition, that is, the methods of commercial and official opera houses in the 18th and 19th centuries, where cuts and alterations were vigorously pursued during the rehearsal for the premiere (witness the creation at the Paris Opera of Verdi’s Don Carlos, most impressively performed at Caramoor this summer), the workshopping common in popular musical theater, has developed over the past few decades, when production costs have risen enormously, increasing the risk to backers. A producer, in order to attract investors, has to show that their horse is virtually certain to win or place. This process can go on for as long as a decade, as I recently learned from Charles Leipart in our interview about the very promising Rehearsal Club musical he is in the process of developing. The danger is that a work can end up being designed by committee, with more of a marketing mentality than a creative one. I’m not convinced that The Great Gatsby would have been any better than it was or is today, if it had undergone this process.

John Harbison has been associated with Boston and Emmanuel Music since its foundation in 1970. In addition to being an outlet for his lifelong passion for Bach, it has been something of a workshop or laboratory for his own music. Above all, it has been a musical home for him, and I can’t help seeing this production of Gatsby as a homecoming for the opera. The Met has resources possessed by only a few opera houses in the world—now including, unfortunately, a floor under the stage from which one could launch a missile and a very large and expensive piece of useless machinery—which doesn’t mean that one can do anything there. The values of Emmanuel Music’s concert performance seemed in most ways antithetical to the Met’s aesthetic. As loyal a champion of and as sympathetic to Mr. Harbison’s music as he is, James Levine occasioned its premiere in a different world. The restrained, subtle acting of the singers, the beauty of their singing, and the elegance of their shaping of details, the responsiveness of the orchestra, and Ryan Turner’s thorough knowledge of the score all made for a performance which seemed to get it right in almost every case. I missed the Met premiere, I should add, and have not yet seen the video on Met Opera on Demand, the company’s invaluable archive of past performances.

One factor at play for the premiere was the reverence many people feel for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Even apart from its sacredness as a book, it seems a difficult source for an opera. Not everyone loves it, however, and I could name some names. When I was compelled to read it in high school, I detested it heartily, mostly because the characters seemed so inconsequential—and Fitzgerald’s prose is ridden with stilted sentences, intended to reenforce the literary respectability of the novella, and opportunistically purple paragraphs. I like the book better today, but I still think that Harbison’s treatment—he wrote the libretto himself—is an improvement. In cutting and reshaping the text for singers, he raised the perspective of the story to issues of personal identity and exile or displacement. These are of course not absent from the book, but today, ninety years since Gatsby was a novel of its time, these questions remain, while the Jazz Age lives on mostly in movies and recordings of the period. For both Fitzgerald and Harbison, the characters are necessarily as hollow as the humanity of Eliot’s poem. None of them, not even Nick Carraway, who alone packed a few of his midwestern moral values in his valise when he descended on New York, have a real core or foundation. This makes them extremely difficult to act. Owen Davis’ 1926 play has had no afterlife, except as the model for the screenplays of at least four unsuccessful film adaptations. (Contrast the mastery of Antonioni and Fellini and their casts in this type of character.) Harbison, who stepped over the Davis play back to the original novel, incurring some difficulty in obtaining the rights, created challenges no Don Giovanni, Violetta, Pinkerton, or Gunther has to face. Devon Guthrie, Gordon Gietz, Krista River, and David Kravitz had to remain true to this inner void, while holding the audience’s interest in their characters. Their solution was to underplay the parts, while singing with the precision and elegance Harbison’s classical style demanded. They succeeded in this, I thought, overcoming factors that are only constraining to operatic expression as it is most familiar, and giving absorbing performances, which could never come across on larger stages. Most of the characters performed more or less in costume, if not the costume specifically required by each scene. A fully-staged performance would be the next step in bringing the story and the characters fully to life. This is not a defect in Harbison’s treatment. It is a core aspect of the novel, one which especially interested the composer, and he is only to be commended for respecting it, in contrast to Owen Davis and his cinematic followers.

The most disturbing shortcoming in the performance I noted—and this was more apparent in Ozawa Hall than at Jordan—was in the scene in which Gatsby contemplates Daisy’s house across the bay. This contains some of the richest orchestral writing in the opera, and I thought the scene was played too loud and without dynamic contrast to enhance the textural and tonal palette. I haven’t had access to the score to examine how the dynamics are marked. As for the opera itself, I found Harbison’s treatment of the final chapter, in which Gatsby is buried and Carraway gets his chance to speak out, to be problematic. As in the rest of the opera, he did a marvelous job of excising specifics, which only distract us from the important themes, and the setting of the final two pages, with Nick’s reminiscence of boarding-school visits back to Minnesota and the famous concluding paragraph was magical, but what preceded it was a bit too long. Mr. Gatz’s relation of his son’s childhood journal is important, but in the context of opera it delayed things too much, as did the brief appearance of the preacher. Harbison might have made more of Meyer Wolfsheim, sung with such sinister eloquence by James Maddalena. If anything is the opera is not yet final, it is those few final pages.

Otherwise this almost final Gatsby is a great success, a tragic opera, which is both substantial and entertaining, and which deserves a long and vigorous performance life from now on. Time for John Harbison to start a new one!

See also Lloyd Schwartz and Larry Wallach on Harbison’s The Great Gatsby.

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