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.
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.