Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 17, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 11, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

John Harbison
Fitzgerald’s classic novel has been memorably adapted on film at least five times, on stage at least once (“Gatz”) and, in 1999, as an opera for James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera by composer John Harbison, who also wrote his own libretto. A revised version of the opera was powerfully presented at Tanglewood by the orchestra and chorus of Boston-based Emmanuel Music led by their artistic director Ryan Turner and joined by twelve vocal soloists.

Harbison notes in the program book that the opera began gestating when he wrote a short orchestral piece, Remembering Gatsby, for the Atlanta Symphony in 1985 which later became the opera’s overture. While its music suggests influences as diverse as Barber, Messiaen, and Britten, the opera creates a distinctive sound world all its own. Part of its unique sound is the interweaving of popular tunes sung in 1920s style by a “radio singer” and a “tango singer” when a radio plays behind some of the action. These songs sound like familiar hits of the era, but they were all written by Harbison, with lyrics by Murray Horwitz.   

The same ensemble performed “Gatsby” in Boston two months ago, and their experience with the piece added poignancy and depth to this production. All the soloists did fine work, but three performances were especially distinguished.  Soprano Devon Guthrie brought warmth and vulnerability to Daisy; tenor Gordon Gietz was a tormented but dignified Gatsby; and baritone David Kravitz carefully balanced emotional involvement with distance from the other characters as narrator Nick Carraway. 

The production made imaginative use of Ozawa Hall’s limited stage space, with chorus members entering and leaving periodically from backstage and even appearing on the first balcony in the closing funeral scene.  The virtuosic orchestra included a “stage band” which played idiomatic twenties-style dance music during the party scenes.  

The personal meaning of this triumphant evening for Harbison, whose career has deep ties to both the BSO and Emmanuel Music, was clear in his beaming smile when he joined the performers on stage for a well-deserved curtain call from a large and enthusiastic audience.