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“The Great Gatsby,” Sung Beneath the Stars

Gatsby
Photo courtesy of Opera Parallèle

By Robert Burke Warren
When The Great Gatsby hit bookstores in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s peers loved it, but critical response was mixed; it sold poorly, and the definitive Jazz Age novel faded into obscurity for two decades, rising again only after WW II. Sadly, Fitzgerald, who passed away in 1940, did not live to see this turnaround, confirming, prematurely, the writer’s own line that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Composer John Harbison, by contrast, gets to enjoy the second act of his operatic interpretation of The Great Gatsby, presented in a concert version by Emmanuel Music on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall. (A Gatsby Party will follow.) Harbison’s Gatsby, for which he also wrote the libretto, last received a full-scale production at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2002. While audiences raved, some critics did not, and Harbison, recipient of both a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant, poured his energies into other pursuits, including his longstanding gig as a professor of music at M.I.T.

great gBut the music he composed for Gatsby, great sweeping swells of drama, with shadowy undertones and bold dissonances, has lived on. In 2012, San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle presented a streamlined mounting (pictured at top), and Harbison, intrigued, approached his tempestuous child once again. “The ensemble reduction gave me an opportunity to review the piece,” he says. “I hadn’t done that. This version Emmanuel is doing at Tangelwood gave me a chance to tighten it up. It’s hard to cut a piece, but there are other factors you have to take into account.” His new version — a full orchestration — is about twenty minutes shorter than before, two seventy-five minute acts, give or take.

ComposerHarbison (picture at right by Katrin Talbot) knows Fitzgerald himself had to edit. When composing his opera, Harbison gained access to “the Gatsby sketchbook,” which includes much of what Fitzgerald cut. “[The Great Gatsby] is boiled down from three times that many pages,” he says. “He was a very exacting, hard working writer. He worked like crazy. It took him a long time. Some of the stuff he cut out is great stuff. You come upon wonderful passages that didn’t make it in.”

Harbison is pleased with Emmanuel Music’s concert version format, which played in May to glowing reviews at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston. “Staging can be distracting,” he says. “People sometimes have trouble listening when there’s other things they’re trying to watch. A concert performance has people listening differently, and that’s nice. If they know the story, they can add something to it.”

ryanConductor and Emmanuel Music artistic director Ryan Turner (at left) agrees. “I’ve always felt like this was a score that needed a concert hearing to get its due,” he says. “The music is quite stunning and breathtaking. The orchestration is so vivid, and there are so many colors and sounds and textures, which essentially are another character in the opera. There are interludes that take you out of one location and into another, not just geographically, but emotionally. [In Boston] it was exciting to see the response the audience made to this exceptional score.”

Harbison’s Gatsby echoes the composer’s feeling that the novel, and Jay Gatsby in particular, is darker than most people realize. “It’s a pretty serious story,” he says. “People tend to forget the gangster Gatsby hangs out with — Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby makes everything happen with gangster money.”

Turner concurs: “There’s a benign misinterpretation of the novel. There’s this appeal of the tinsel and glitter of the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, but underneath all this tinsel, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. It’s a tough piece dramatically and emotionally.”

“Seems like what was haunting Fitzgerald,” says Harbison, “was a premonition that this would all crash. That seemed to be part of what was driving him. In the mid 20s a lot of people didn’t feel it, but he did. The whole hectic atmosphere was heading towards something very startling. This era wasn’t going to last.”

movieWhy the resurgence of interest in Fitzgerald’s doomed dreamer, from Baz Luhrmann’s film, to Gatz, the successful, touring staged reading (eight hours long!) by theater company Elevator Repair Service? “There’s some appeal given the economic climate we’re in,” says Turner. “So much of the novel is about this idea that inherited wealth isn’t enough to satisfy, there’s got to be something more. There’s a resonance in our current culture with that idea.”

“[Gatsby revivals] seem to come at very regular intervals since the book was brought back to consciousness in 1945,” says Harbison. “Every decade or so, there’s a resurgence. People were having Gatsby parties after the Redford movie. It really never goes away. Every generation seems to need its own movie.”

Or so they think. Perhaps what they really need, and indeed now possess, is their own opera.

Harbison’s The Great Gatsby - Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music
Tanglewood
Seiji Ozawa Hall
Thursday, July 11, 7:30 PM
Lenox, MA
Tickets: $18.00 - $53.00

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