John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby in Boston
The Great Gatsby
John Harbison, composer and librettist
The Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music
Conducted by Ryan Turner
Sunday, May 12, 2013, 3 pm
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall
Jay Gatsby – Gordon Gietz, tenor
Daisy Buchanan – Devon Guthrie, soprano
Tom Buchanan – Alex Richardson, tenor
Nick Carraway – David Kravitz, baritone
Jordan Baker – Krista River, mezzo-soprano
George Wilson – David Cushing, bass
Myrtle Wilson – Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano
Radio Singer – Charles Blandy, tenor
Tango Singer – Lynn Torgove, mezzo-soprano
Meyer Wolfshiem – James Maddalena, baritone
Henry Gatz – Donald Wilkinson, bass
Minister – Dana Whiteside, baritone
“So we beat on, boats against the currents, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick Carraway’s concluding insight in The Great Gatsby is one of the great closing sentences in literature, and one of the great images of our human helplessness to escape the past. It’s also the line that ends John Harbison’s Gatsby opera, which—13 years after its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera—just had its first complete Boston performance, in a concert version produced by Emmanuel Music (the musical organization Harbison co-founded in 1970 with Craig Smith at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, mainly to play all of Bach’s cantatas as part of every Sunday’s liturgy). Harbison is now Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel, which has long been associated with his music, including the very first public performance, in 1997, of the first two scenes from The Great Gatsby.
The Gatsby premiere, conducted by James Levine, who remained a determined advocate, got mixed reviews, but mainly not for Harbison’s score. There were some reservations about his own libretto, some about the casting of several roles (especially Gatsby and Daisy), but mostly about the clumsy staging and on-the-cheap scenic design. The Chicago Lyric Opera presented a slightly modified version in 2000, and the Met revived it in 2002. It was always on Levine’s back burner. He was determined to do it in concert when he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but the medical problems that led to his resignation ended that hope. In 2008, 25 minutes of Gatsby were performed at the Aspen Festival, which led to a reduced-orchestra version by Ensemble Parallèle in San Francisco last year followed by a staging at Aspen. That staging, Harbison says, inspired him to make significant cuts, and the premiere of this shorter, tighter version, with full orchestra, is what Emmanuel Music delivered at Boston’s Jordan Hall, to be repeated at Tanglewood, July 11.
As with most operas with multiple major characters—whether La Gioconda, Don Giovanni, or La forza del destino—it’s probably impossible to assemble an ideal cast for Gatsby. At the Met, the outstanding performance was by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in her Met debut, as Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle Wilson. For Harbison, she’s the one “true-hearted character in the book,” and Lieberson’s voluptuous voice and dramatic intensity revealed that depth of passion and honesty under Myrtle’s flapper/floozy surface. There were also very strong performances by Dwayne Croft as Nick, Susan Graham as androgynous golf-pro Jordan Baker, and Mark Baker as the “hulking” Tom Buchanan (“I hate that word, ‘hulking’”). But Harbison’s vocal demands were beyond the capacities at that time of either tenor Jerry Hadley (Gatsby) or soprano Dawn Upshaw (Daisy).
In Boston, the most outstanding performance was by veteran baritone James Maddalena (Peter Sellars’s first and best Don Giovanni and Nixon in Nixon in China), who played Gatsby’s sinister “business partner” and mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim (why has his name been misspelled “Wolfshiem” in program books dating back to the Met premiere?). Maddalena was in rich, resonant voice and inhabited this small but crucial role with chilling conviction. In his pre-concert discussion with composer and BSO Assistant Director of Program Publications Robert Kirzinger, Harbison compared Wolfsheim to the assassin Sparafucile in Rigoletto, “the character who makes the greatest impression in the shortest amount of time.” That’s what Maddalena does, no matter what the size of the part.
Other standouts were young tenor Alex Richardson, as the tough yet thin-skinned, coarse yet dapper rich guy, the womanizing , woman-beating Tom Buchanan; and stylish mezzo-soprano Krista River as the lithe, cool, girl-jock Jordan Baker. Both sang exceptionally well and accurately, and both actually created convincing characters. So did gravelly bass David Cushing as Wilson, Myrtle’s jealous husband driven to murder by her infidelity.
The singer who got the biggest hand was Boston baritone David Kravitz, as Nick, probably the hardest role in the opera to pull off. In Fitzgerald, he’s the narrator, indirectly revealing the story of his coming into maturity as he tells the story of Gatsby and Daisy and Tom, who—like America itself—will never come into their own. Harbison makes Nick just another character, just another player in the drama—Daisy’s 30-year-old businessman cousin from the Midwest who arranges the reunion of former lovers Daisy and Gatsby. There’s little more to characterize him. Kravitz has a strong (sometimes too strong) powerhouse of a voice, and every so often he’d use his face or body characterfully, grinning or shrugging or humorously nodding. But he projected “opera singer” more than mid-western innocent. He could have been anybody.
When soprano Devon Guthrie was still a student at Juilliard, not so long ago, she played Mozart’s Donna Elvira, the noblewoman betrayed and outraged by the sexually obsessed Don Giovanni. I’d like to hear her as Elvira. But maybe I already did. As Daisy, she seemed more grande dame than vulnerable naïve. She has more youth in her voice than in her manner, and it’s quite a voice, both silvery and strong throughout her range. But I never believed her, and so I was never moved by her emotional turmoil, her loyalty to Tom and her love for Gatsby.
Young Canadian tenor Gordon Gietz (Gietz plays Gatz!) has an elegant voice, unforced and lyrical at the top. He can handle with ease Harbison’s high tessitura. His low notes have less presence, but there aren’t a lot of them here. Vocally, he was superior to the late Jerry Hadley. But as the mysterious, obsessed, self-reinventing Gatsby (“I had no choice but to invent myself”), he didn’t have much charisma or mystery, and rather undersang the part (almost the opposite of Kravitz, who tended to oversing Nick).
Mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon impressed me when I heard her in a Winsor Music concert at Brookline’s St. Paul’s Church, singing Bach under Harbison’s direction. But she didn’t seem ready for Myrtle’s deep undercurrents of desperate longing. Growdon looked deliciously flapperish, but in Jordan Hall she sounded thinner than I remembered and projected only Myrtle’s hot-to-trot flooziness. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is a very hard act to follow.
Baritones Donald Wilkinson, as Gatsby’s father, and Dana Whiteside, as the minister at Gatsby’s empty funeral, did well in these small, maybe deliberately anticlimactic roles. The Emmanuel Music Chorus was spectacular in its larger one.
But one of the mysteries of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby is that it doesn’t fully depend on the singers. The music, like an inexorable current, carries everything along with it. The overture, written a decade before the rest of the opera, before it was possible to get the rights to Gatsby (and called Remembering Gatsby) contains the musical seeds of the entire work. It begins with a wail of doom that suddenly morphs into a brightly syncopated fox-trot, with soprano sax and banjo. Memorable arias give each character a chance to expand, to breathe. In one seductive duet, Daisy and Jordan complain languidly about the heat while they’re listening to a languid song on the radio called “Cool.” There are masterful quartets and quintets. At every moment the orchestration is not merely colorful (down to an old Stutz Bearcat “ahoogah” horn, train whistles, ringing telephones, and radio static) but so “vocal” the orchestra itself seems to become the lead singer. And Ryan Turner’s huge and magnificent Emmanuel Music Orchestra surely did, from concertmaster Danielle Maddon to the stage band including Scott Kuney’s banjo, Michael Monaghan’s soprano sax, and Takatsugu Hagiwara’s tuba.
Two extended multi-layered party scenes (like the banquet scene in Don Giovanni, with its overlapping bands on stage) are at the heart of the opera and are absolutely riveting. While the emotional drama is playing out, party guests gossip, and a tenor with a megaphone (Charles Blandy) croons ‘20s-style love songs with parody lyrics by Murray Horwitz that, like the “numbers” in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, reflect the situations of the characters (for example, “Dreaming of You”). In his program note, Harbison quotes an intermission comment at the premiere: “If only the composer could write tunes as beautiful as those old songs he quotes.” Mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove, who staged the very musical entrances and exits, made a delectable cameo appearance as a Tango Singer. Turner kept these scenes moving like a juggernaut, just as his expert pacing kept the entire opera in constant complex motion.
The Great Gatsby, such a flop when it was first published in 1925, has in recent years been more visible than ever, given Baz Luhrmann’s expensive new film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carrie Mulligan and the recent six-hour play Gatz at ART and on Broadway. So the timing has been serendipitous for Emmanuel Music. Jordan Hall was filled to virtual capacity. Maybe Americans are finally awake to Fitzgerald’s depiction of the delusions of the American Dream. Bostonians certainly seemed receptive to John Harbison’s extraordinary opera, which, as perhaps only music can, gets so directly to the heart and guts of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.
Dr. Schwartz's writing also appears in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, especially in the summer, when he visits Tanglewood and other festivals in the Berkshires. Click here for a list of them.