New England’s Prospect: Babylon Revisited

New England’s Prospect: Babylon Revisited

American operas, apparently, can have the second acts American lives cannot. The concert performance, at Tanglewood on July 11, of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby—after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously hypothesized that particular limitation of biographical dramaturgy—was a bid for redemption.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

The Great Gatsby

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

His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was….

American operas, apparently, can have the second acts American lives cannot. The concert performance, at Tanglewood on July 11, of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby—after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously hypothesized that particular limitation of biographical dramaturgy—was a bid for redemption. The program notes (and pre-concert discussion) were less about the piece than its time in the wilderness, from its lukewarm reception at its 1999 Metropolitan Opera premiere, through various salvage operations, small and large (a set of songs, a set of piano etudes, a suite, a chamber-sized version) to this full-orchestra reprise—itself a reprise, the chorus and orchestra of Emmanuel Music and the cast repeating their performance from May. The concert was presented as an opportunity for vindication, a chance to replace that original reception with something more generous, a chance to “fix everything just the way it was before,” as the protagonist put it. The opportunity was taken: a large and enthusiastic crowd saved its biggest ovation for Harbison himself.

That The Great Gatsby still doesn’t come off as an effective piece of music theater seemed beside the point. So it might be worth asking in what guise the piece might work, what it might be, what people might hear it to be—or want it to be.

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The performance, to be sure, was enviable. Conductor Ryan Turner drew out the score’s depth and sway; the orchestra gave everything a patina of assurance. The singers were similarly fine. This was musical boosterism of a high level, musicians determined to present the piece in the best possible light.

In such an accomplished realization, and in a concert performance, one alternate way to hear The Great Gatsby emerged, and that is as a three-hour tone poem of Gatsbyian moods, with an obbligato layer of singing. Three hours is a lot, but the orchestral writing is frequently marvelous, a perpetually fluid swirl of plush fabric. The shading can be subtle and exquisite. Towards the beginning, an interlude transitions the scenery from the opening—Nick Carraway (David Kravitz) visiting his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Devon Guthrie), her hulking husband Tom (Alex Richardson), and her friend, the professional golfer Jordan Baker (Krista River)—to the Valley of Ashes, the industrial wasteland that is home to Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Katherine Growdon). Harbison takes the bass clarinet from the previous scene and sharpens it into a more mechanical clarinet-marimba combination; high strings, previously providing an upper overtone to the singers’ brief litany of Gatsby’s name, suddenly get an ominous cushion of horns and a brittle piano-and-harp ictus. Later, for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, Harbison pulls out a terrific orchestral shimmer of radiant cool—fluttering winds, hollow brass, washes of glissandi. Harbison is a composer for whom the orchestra seems a natural habitat.

Ryan Turner, with soloists Devon Guthrie (as Daisy) and Gordon Gietz (as Gatsby) during the Emmanuel Music performance of The Great Gatsby. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

Ryan Turner, with soloists Devon Guthrie (as Daisy) and Gordon Gietz (as Gatsby) during the Emmanuel Music performance of The Great Gatsby. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

But the result is that the orchestra drives the piece, not the voices. In a few places this is effective—instances of civility and strained politeness that can’t quite escape the roiling instrumental tension. In other places, it ties the drama down. This becomes especially apparent when Harbison is emulating 1920s pop, which he does with a stage band and a cornucopia of authenticity—banjo, choked crash cymbals, and a megaphone-wielding singer (Charles Blandy), arranged with uncanny precision—while adding just enough sophistication to make his compositional touch apparent. Again and again, though, as that music drifts into the orchestra, the characters are left to fit their lines to this material, settling into the trompe-l’oeil like some sort of musical Tetris. As Myrtle and Tom are going about their adulterous fencing, for instance, the orchestra’s simulation of pop radio is so exact that it becomes a distraction—or keeps their interaction too light and trivial to make the escalation to violence convincing. When Nick and Jordan are setting the scene for Gatsby’s entrance, they seem trapped in the party’s dance music, to the point that their own characters are effaced.

Harbison’s text-setting is largely syllabic and beholden to speech rhythms—clear and natural, but rarely letting the singing take flight. In his program note, Harbison remembers Sarah Billinghurst, the Met’s Artistic Administrator at the time of the commissioning of Gatsby, telling the composer, “It is my job to prevent you from becoming the librettist of this opera.” One wishes she had been more diligent. Harbison hits all the novel’s marks—the mystery surrounding Gatsby (Gordon Gietz); his yearning for Daisy; the affair between Tom and Myrtle, with Myrtle’s husband (David Cushing) lurking in the background; Gatsby’s parties; Gatsby’s underworld partner, Meyer Wolfshiem (James Maddalena), sidling in and out; the observers, Nick and Jordan, observing—but the whole thing unfolds less as a drama than a slightly perfunctory tour of Fitzgerald’s landmarks. The libretto is, often, its own synopsis. (This reaches a kind of absurd apotheosis at the beginning of the second act, when the chorus is so busy singing about how rumors are spreading about Gatsby that they largely fail to spread any actual rumors). The opera is not so much concerned with telling us the story as assuring us that it knows that story well enough to tell it.

The problem is not that the libretto is clunky—plenty of operas have thrived on even clunkier libretti—but that there is a mismatch between the blunt exposition of so much of the text and the expansive, emotional musical style Harbison pursues throughout the piece. If there were a Nobel prize for music, one that worked like the awards for the sciences—for innovation and discovery—some composer would probably win one for coming up with an effective modern version of recitative. The Great Gatsby, certainly, could use some of that explanatory speed. Opting for the modern perpetual-arioso mode of operatic composition, Harbison gets stuck treating plot-heavy dialogue at a deliberate tempo better suited to freeze-frame emotional peaks. Slowed down to a lyrical crawl, the prosaic nature of the text becomes a liability.

Harbison defaults to Fitzgerald’s language in a way that gives some scenes a pageant-like feel—and frustrates operatic energies. The novel’s more famous phrases duly appear, but stick out as quotes among the surrounding abbreviation. (Harbison’s deference to the novel is especially apparent in comparison with Baz Luhrmann’s movie version that came out this spring. Harbison has Gatsby fade in, his small talk with Nick about the war veneered into the middle of another ’20s-pop recreation. Luhrmann skips all that in favor of an extravagant reveal, Gatsby filling the screen, lovingly lit, with a backdrop of fireworks and the slightly anachronistic climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue blazing forth. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But also more effectively operatic than anything in the opera version.) Nick’s final peroration—the orgiastic green light, the boats against the current—is justly famous, but setting it word-for-word, as Harbison does, is to deprive opera of its own chance at storytelling. One suspects that a Puccini or a Strauss would have sent Nick on his way, given us and the orchestra one last flash of the green light, and rang down the curtain.

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Cast of The Great Gatsby

The cast of The Great Gatsby bows following their performance. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

But there is still another way of listening to the piece, one I actually found the most interesting. One can hear The Great Gatsby as an attempt at the Great American Opera—and, crucially, an attempt that is not only a) fully aware of its own status as such an attempt, but also b) fully aware that the category is largely nonexistent. Think about some of the more plausible candidates for the Great American Opera: Susannah, or Vanessa, or Einstein on the Beach, or Nixon in China, or (my own vote) Bernstein’s Mass. There are other candidates, certainly, but even that little gathering is indicative of a category either so wide open as to defy usefulness, or based solely on a kind of epic quirkiness.

Harbison has done something a little different, though—he’s fashioned a convincing simulation of what an ideal Great American Opera might have sounded like to someone who, at some time in the past, might have cared about such a thing. The overall sound: tonal but brawny with dissonance, muscular yet lyrical. The use of an American vernacular: those lovingly exact pop tunes, given the structural prominence of Bach chorales. The source material, classic literature honored with a fidelity to please a high-school English teacher. Through this lens, The Great Gatsby becomes something intriguing: a consistent evocation of an imaginary art form, complete with flaws. Maybe that’s what the audience was applauding, sensing the audacity of a truly grand-scale bluff.

Harbison’s idea of the Great American Opera is, essentially, modeled after Verdi. The party scenes owe a debt to the last act of La Traviata; perhaps Harbison’s decision to write Tom Buchanan, essentially the opera’s heavy, for a tenor voice is an emulation of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto (which would make Nick, a baritone, an appropriately jester-like figure). But Verdi would gut-renovate his sources until he had a vehicle for lapidary musical characterization. The Great Gatsby doesn’t come close to such a ruthless translation of the novel’s delicate style.

There are a couple places in the score where we get a glimpse of the terms on which the opera might have worked: the duet between Gatsby and Daisy at the end of the first act; and the second scene of the second act, with all the main characters gathered at the Buchanans’ house and wilting in the heat. The characters are suddenly in the sharpest focus, paradoxically supported by the most impressionistic passages in the piece, both scenes suffused with a transparent, luminous haze of orchestration. And, significantly, both scenes are among the opera’s least-plotted. In those passages, one got the sense that simply situating the characters among a loose string of symbolic images—the parties, the car, the eyes on Dr. Eckleburg’s billboard, the green light—might be more than enough to hold up a Gatsby opera. Gatsby’s frangibility, his airy tragedy, is of a piece with the most elliptical, dream-like qualities of American life and American celebrity: all charged snapshots and everyday epiphanies, the ephemeral and inconsequential turned into the everlasting and paramount.

Late in his short life, Fitzgerald, who was in the habit of sending his daughter letters of advice, informed her that “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” The Great Gatsby, the opera, making sure that the pipes are free of leaves, ends up draining the pool—but not before, for at least a couple of brief moments, casting off the novel’s reputation and diving into the deep end.