REVISED: Judicial Review #11: “The Great Gatsby” — A Great Opera?

[Revised] Arts Fuse Critic Roberta Silman has just added her review of the Tanglewood premiere of John Harbison’s opera version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. Read her reaction and others and join the conversation. Opinions about the new movie version welcome as well.

The Great Gatsby. Music by John Harbison. Libretto by the composer after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Additional lyrics by Murray Horwitz. Soloists, Orchestra, and Chorus of Emmanuel Music conducted by Ryan Turner. Presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, July 11, at 7:30 p.m., Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, Lenox, MA.

Introduction by Jonathan Blumhofer, Editor

Gordon Gietz (Gatsby) and Devon Guthrie (Daisy) in the Boston premiere of “The Great Gatsby.” Photo: Julian Bullit

John Harbison’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was an opera a long time in the works: 14 years elapsed between Remembering Gatsby, a 1985 foxtrot for orchestra (which Harbison’s program note explains was adapted from an “abandoned” operatic setting) and the Metropolitan Opera premiere of The Great Gatsby in December 1999. It took another 14 for the piece to make its way up I-95 to Boston.

But 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for Gatsby in Massachusetts. On May 12th, Emmanuel Music offered the belated Boston premiere of the opera in a concert performance at Jordan Hall, and the same cast (and forces) will reprise the score at Tanglewood on July 11th. Fitzgerald’s 90-year-old story and characters have much yet to tell us, it seems, and how better to acknowledge this reality than through the stage adaptation of this seminal American novel by of one of the country’s most distinguished composers?

The judges on this Judicial Review include Nathaniel Beyer and Andy Vores, chair of Composition and Theory at the Boston Conservatory. Please feel free to join the conversation!

Majority Opinion

Both reviewers found that, on the whole, Gatsby works: Harbison’s opera, Beyer writes, succeeds in capturing the feeling of Fitzgerald’s writing, which takes us “up to the edge of what language can express, trying to express what cannot or will not easily take shape in words.” Vores argues that Gatsby “might be the best American opera of the past 30 years” and that it’s filled with music “that kicks into action and hurtles through two acts to its conclusion.”

Minority Opinion

One reviewer suggests that it’s an opera that packs little emotional punch: “Despite the events, there’s no feeling of loss or of catharsis, and somehow you know this will be the case even early on in the opera.” Additionally, it’s proposed that Harbison’s decision to craft his own libretto limits the opera’s “connectedness” with its audience. Also, one critic suggests that some of the novel’s biting critique of wealth and power is diminished in its staged adaptation.

Jonathan Blumhofer, Editor

Judge #1
Nathaniel Beyer

To fully express any iconic novel in music is a tall order. As with any work of literature, part of the enduring power of The Great Gatsby is locked in the language itself, in Fitzgerald’s dazzling writing. “For a moment,” Fitzgerald writes, “a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.” Published three years after Ulysses and The Wasteland, Fitzgerald is approaching the heavy task of modernism: writing up to the edge of what language can express, trying to express what cannot or will not easily take shape in words. John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby captures that feeling in his music, from its splits and jolts from nineteenth-century pastoral and bits of 1920s jazz to brash, modernistic tones that suggest the moment in which Fitzgerald wrote and the tensions that animate his prose. There is a hint, at times more than a hint, of Stravinsky, even Berg and Schoenberg, which runs just beneath the surface of the singing and imbues the characters with the tensions and the on-cusp-of-now sense of Fitzgerald’s novel.

The Great Gatsby is a novel of becoming. In its story of love and identity, betrayal, and tragedy, it questions whether anyone, regardless of motives, can escape the tectonic forces that shape us. As critic Roger Lewis points out, the murkiness of Gatsby’s past highlights “the rootlessness of post-war American society, its restless alienation, and its consequent reliance on money for expressing emotions and identity.” We are all, in this view, trying to build our selves on continually shifting ground. Much of the crisis of identity that the novel explores is also expressed through the opera’s score. In the scene where Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and Nick meet, the music undulates beneath their dialogue, suggesting the plasticity, even the duplicity of their identities. When Daisy talks about missing the “old warm world,” the orchestra plays soft, discordant notes to suggest the dilemma of characters that can neither relive nor escape the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is a novel about becoming, American style.

Many of the big scenes and lines from Gatsby are present in the opera, from the “tuning fork” struck on the stars to the revelation of Gatsby’s shirts. Tom’s lumbering, buffoonish power is captured wonderfully by the orchestra’s leitmotif, and each character is enlarged and re-imagined by the orchestral setting. Yet unlike wholly modernist works, Gatsby has a propulsive plot, and the opera captures each moment of that framework beautifully—Daisy’s choice between Tom and Gatsby, the death of Myrtle, and, ultimately, Gatsby’s murder. Through the frenzy of those final movements, however, some of Fitzgerald’s critique of wealth and power gets lost. Part of the reason may be that in a staged performance, the trappings of money are largely limited to costumes and language. But the piece also diminishes Tom’s role in Gatsby’s murder. In the book, it’s not an off-hand comment Tom makes to Wilson at the scene of the crime but a more directive statement made to the grieved husband when he is clearly armed and dangerous. Fitzgerald makes it clear that Tom is sending Wilson to kill Gatsby in much the same way he might send him to fix his car. In moving this point to the wings, we miss seeing the power at work in Fitzgerald’s America (an early draft of the novel was titled “Among Ash-heaps and Millionaires”). We don’t have to look any further than the effects of the Great Recession to see that America is still dealing with the inequitable consequences of catastrophe.

In the final turn of identity, we are only what we are, not what we have tried to make of ourselves, a theme that has preoccupied American literature since Gatsby. It is certainly impossible to include every moment and passage that make the novel. Some things will remain solely within the pages of the book. Yet Harbison’s The Great Gatsby captures the story and artistic moment of Fitzgerald’s enduring work through the deft movements of his score.

Nate Beyer‘s writing has appeared online in Dark Sky Magazine and The Adirondack Review. He received a 2012 Emerging Artist grant from the St. Botolph Club Foundation. In early 2013, his story “Losing Allen” was preformed by the Liar’s League of NYC. He is a graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing Program and lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with his daughter, Zoe.

Judge #2
Andy Vores

I’m never too sure what I’m going to be really listening to at a concert. Sometimes I just hear the music as music, but more often than not I end up decoding and deconstructing, trying to tease out more about the orchestration, form, structural underpinnings, gestures, textures, and so on. When I’m lucky, the music is imagined compellingly enough and constructed painstakingly enough that both of these ways of listening happen together.

I heard the premiere of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby at the Met in 1999 and also the concert performance/reading at MIT in 1997. What had stayed with me from both those occasions was a sense of languor, despite the action: the still, hot afternoons in the hotel and in the garage made a greater impression on me than any of the other scenes.

With this Sunday’s performance by Emmanuel Music, however, I heard a work that kicks into action and hurtles through two acts to its conclusion; this might well be due to the cuts and the tightening of the orchestration that followed the first full production. The score is brilliantly intricate and its trajectory is crystal clear, but it’s not a comfortable place to be: hyperkinetic, packed with obsessive detail, and relentless—there’s barely a passage of calm that doesn’t have something twitching under the surface.

What it doesn’t give is a big emotional punch. Despite the events, there’s no feeling of loss or of catharsis, and somehow you know this will be the case even early on in the opera. I wondered why: in part, it might just be the nature of Harbison’s muse. I’ve never found his music to be hot to the touch—always assured, interesting, connected, illuminating even but, rarely, I find, emotionally intense even when its subject, as it often is, is passion. This is an observation, not a criticism; there’s a need for many kinds of voices, and it’s always vital for a composer to be honestly him or her self in the music. However, a story like The Great Gatsby might need some of this emotional connectedness if only to cover for its self-absorbed and vapid characters.

But is there anything more specific than “voice” that produces this coolness? One thing that might exaggerate this tendency is the similarity of the vocal writing for most of the characters. I’d felt this after the Met performance and thought it might be because the composer wrote the libretto. Perhaps, I thought, the distinctive lilt and nuance that a playwright could bring to each different character’s manner of speaking was missing (on the other hand, all of the action takes place as remembered and relived in Nick Carraway’s head, so there’s a logic to the sameness, too).

I now think that there’s another more likely reason for this feeling of uniformity in the vocal writing: underpinning the music of the opera are Harbison’s own 1920s-style, dance-based songs. These are beautifully rendered, they sound authentic, and they spill out into the whole score. They are the skeleton of the opera, and, appropriately, the characters’ lines are often draped over these songs or over extensions of them. But as the songs are so clearly apprehended by the ear, anything placed on top of them is in danger of becoming musically incidental to the song. I wonder if these songs themselves effectively preempt characterizing the cast.

It’s curious (although I think it points again to the enormous skill and consideration in Harbison’s score) that the two characters with the most distinctive vocal writing are the two characters who die. In other words, the two characters to whom something actually happens. Myrtle’s music is torchy and bluesy, springing naturally from what’s playing on the radio (Harbison’s own 1920s songs), and Gatsby’s music gravitates again and again to long, high, held notes.

A scene from Emmanuel Music’s concert presentation of “The Great Gatsby.” Photo: Julian Bullit.

The new, lean score is full of wonderful things. The orchestration itself is constantly thrilling, and the opera contains all sorts of half-submerged set pieces: the bassoon duo accompanying Meyer Wolfsheim’s two appearances; the “traveling” music, sometimes for trains, sometimes for cars; the “twinkling” music sometimes for stars, sometimes for the green light of Daisy’s home seen across the water, sometimes for telephone calls.

Anytime we now hear displaced, disjointed, and disturbed popular music we have learned—in large part from movies—to expect claustrophobia and decadence; it’s the sonic accompaniment to the spinning, dizzying montage sequence (it’s what Ravel capitalized upon, maybe for the first time, in La Valse and what we see in the brutal brownshirt episode in Cabaret). This sensibility is at the center of The Great Gatsby. It was an exhilarating ride, but the party wouldn’t stop, the guests were awful, and coolness ruled.

All of which is to say that this was right for the story, and this might be the best American opera of the past 30 years: it personifies aspects of American life deep in its bones, without sentimentality. It moves. It’s big and it’s bold.

Andy Vores was born Wales and raised in England. He studied composition at Lancaster University with Edward Cowie. From 1982 he worked in London as lecturer and composer-in-residence at The City University. In 1986 he was a fellow in composition at Tanglewood, studying with Oliver Knussen. He has lived in Boston since 1990.

From 1999 to 2001, he was composer-in-residence to the BankBoston Celebrity Series, and from 2002 to 2005, composer-in-residence to the New England Philharmonic. In 2001 he was appointed as chair of Composition, Theory, and Music History at The Boston Conservatory.

Judge #3
Roberta Silman

The Great Gatsby, John Harbison. Performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music, Ryan Turner, artistic director and conductor. Performed on July 11, 2013 in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.


As regular readers of Arts Fuse know from my review of Gatz, a seven hour reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that I did for the magazine back in 2012, I am a big fan of Fitzgerald’s short novel, which has been recognized as an important book in the history of American literature, perhaps not as majestic as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or The Grapes of Wrath, but certainly as important as its nearer contemporaries, Hemingway’s magnificent short stories and Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Its larger than life hero and its portrayal of the “roaring twenties” has fascinated readers for decades, and each time a new treatment of the book, whether it be a movie or this opera, new facets of the story seem to come to life.

I must confess that I went very reluctantly this winter to see Baz Lurhmann’s movie with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Tobey McGuire as Nick Carroway (I didn’t much like the earlier version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow), but came out with a new respect for the Australian director who honed in on the dreams, delusions, and the close relationship of those two characters who have sometimes hitherto gotten lost among the parties and the cars and violence. It is almost as if we needed somewhat not “brought up” on Fitzgerald to probe into the recesses of this very American novel and find things we had not seen before. And those two actors were amazing in their portrayals — suddenly this book was also about two men and what friendship really means.

Since I somehow never caught a performance at the Metropolitan Opera when it was in the repertory from 1999 through 2002, my husband and I were especially glad to come to Tanglewood this past Thursday night to see Gatsby in its latest reincarnation. Our enthusiasm racheted up after we helped an elderly lady in the next box get comfortable and she turned to us as Ryan Turner, the artistic director and conductor of Emmanuel Music came out and said, with enormous pride, “That’s my grandson.”

It was a fabulous evening. Harbison’s music is evocative and sly, and his free use of not only songs from the era, but also many other antecedents too numerous to mention enrich the score. I do agree with Andy Vores that Harbison is a composer whose head prevails over his heart, and I understand why he calls the music “cool.” The truth is, that although Harbison may be our most outstanding American contemporary composer, he does not have the emotional breadth of his two great predecessors, Samuel Barber or Charles Ives, who were much more willing than he to open their hearts and take chances. So the tenderness we cherish in Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 or Adagio for Strings and Ives’s Three Places in New England comes only intermittently in Gatsby in short snatches, but not in a sustained line that might produce what Nabokov, for lack of any other English word, called a tingle.

But Harbison comes from a tradition dominated by music much more modern than Barber or Ives did; thus, he has a different mission, and it may be that with time and years of listening this opera will produce more shivers in succeeding generations than it does now. (Remember hearing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Verklarte Nacht for the first time?) As librettist and composer Harbison approaches The Great Gatsby with a more intellectual bent, and his strength, it seems to me, is getting beneath the surface of Fitzgerald’s characters as they play out their sad destinies. As in the movie mentioned above, Harbison’s portrayal of Nick and Gatsby was very moving. (I wonder if we are finally getting more comfortable with the whole idea of friendship between two men.)

And Harbison is very good with women. Having learned earlier in the week at the Tanglewood Music Center performance of his Closer Than Life that Harbison loves the work of Alice Munro, I think it worth mentioning that in Gatsby Harbison gave the women as much complexity and weight as the men. That is no small matter. Both Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson had more depth in this production than I can ever remember; and Daisy suddenly became much more “round” (in E.M. Forster’s definition). Instead of being presented as a symbol and a flake, Harbison’s Daisy, portrayed beautifully by Devon Guthrie, finally made me understand why she had captivated Gatsby and Nick and why Tom fought so hard to keep her. In the scene at the Plaza which is so often dominated by the violence between Tom and Gatsby, she took center stage, a fully formed, real person who was suffering the tortures of having to choose between the two men. For me that section and Gatsby’s soliloquy at the end were high points of an opera of real intensity and poise.

All through the production showed careful thought: one of the best touches was having the party scenes behind the orchestra so that you when you squinted slightly you felt as if the orchestra had become part of the party, the costumes were wonderfully evocative without being too much, the little gestures of the singers were perfect. The voices and orchestra were superb, the pacing just right, and what struck us was not only the splendid quality of the voices, but also their remarkable diction, especially that of David Kravitz who played Nick.

Ryan Turner’s grandmother, who, we later learned, had come from Austin, Texas to see her talented grandson, had every right to be proud. And Tanglewood, too, should be proud at having hosted Emmanuel Music in Ozawa Hall to give us all this wonderful opera in its 2013 summer season and honoring its very own John Harbison who has been such an important figure at the Tanglewood Music Center for so many years.

Roberta Silman is a regular reviewer at ArtsFuse and spends summers near Tanglewood.

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