The theater world has an established tradition of developing new pieces over time through workshops and out-of-town tryouts, but the opera world has maintained, in certain quarters, a high-stakes tradition of what the composer John Harbison has called “the cold-bath opening night.”
Harbison’s vastly scaled third opera, “The Great Gatsby,” received one such cold bath in December of 1999, when it premiered on the not-so-out-of-town stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The response to that first production was decidedly mixed, and the opera has since limped its way to some temporary way station near the periphery of Harbison’s oeuvre, with the composer turning most of his attention to symphonic music in the intervening years.
That said, since 2008, “Gatsby” has not exactly been slumbering quietly. Harbison extracted a Suite of its music and sanctioned a chamber orchestra reduction. He has also created a tightened full orchestral version of the score. It was this streamlined latter version that was heard for the first time on Sunday afternoon, at a concert performance in Jordan Hall that marked the work’s belated Boston premiere.
I attended the Met’s first production in 1999 and left with a sense of a powerful and idiomatic American opera not yet crisply or fully realized. Having had little contact with the work in the intervening years, I found Sunday’s concert performance, with Ryan Turner leading the Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music, to be a revelation. Harbison’s remarkably polyglot score captures the Jazz Age insouciance and gaiety immortalized by Fitzgerald’s novel, but also the hollowness beneath its glittering facades, the darkness at the heart of this parable, the strength of its moral undertow.
Malcolm Cowley, the literary critic and famed chronicler of the Lost Generation, once observed that Fitzgerald, who was his contemporary, “lived harder than most people have ever lived and acted out his dreams with an extraordinary intensity of emotion. The dreams themselves were not at all unusual . . . [but] it was the emotion he put into his dreams, and the honesty with which he expressed the emotion, that made them seem distinguished.” Here of course is also an essential description of Jay Gatsby himself, who dreams of nothing more exotic than winning back a lost sweetheart, but pursues his dream with a burning ardor that raises his obsessions to a kind of nobility.
The most striking aspect of Harbison’s score, at Sunday’s performance, was precisely the way it distills this intensity of emotion. The intensity roils beneath the many, many notes. It is palpable even in the enormous first chords that open the opera, at once grand yet spiked with dissonance, telegraphing the extravagance of the story about to unfold, but also, in the dark pungency of the harmony, the distilled moral force of Fitzgerald’s vision. Not long after that opening passage, however, Harbison’s music drops its pretense of functioning as kind of operatic conscience and dips debonairly into the world of the novel itself, with a wealth of original 1920s-era jazzy pop tunes created by Harbison (with lyrics by Murray Horwitz).
This poetic and thematic depth of field — the score’s ability to register and convey multiple layers of meaning, and even physical locations, simultaneously — also came through vividly in Sunday’s performance. While the version of “Gatsby” for reduced orchestra may be gaining favor at budget-conscious opera houses, this full orchestral version deserves to find a bright future in concert halls.
That may even be the best place to encounter Harbison’s complex score. The popularity of operatic simulcasts to movie theaters has led to increased audience expectations that staged opera resemble some kind of cinematic experience — and yet what live theater could ever compete with the lavish spectacles conjured up for only the most recent “Gatsby” film adaptation, now out in cinemas, by Baz Luhrmann?
For Sunday’s cast, Emmanuel tapped singers from its own ranks but also reached beyond them. Fitzgerald’s characters have been described as “ideagraphs” but here the vocal writing (to Harbison’s own libretto) — and the supporting instrumental characterizations — confer on them a certain humanity and specificity. This performance was persuasively sung from top to bottom with Gordon Gietz in the title role, Devon Guthrie as Daisy Buchanan, Alex Richardson as Tom Buchanan, David Kravitz as Nick Carraway, Krista River as Jordan Baker, David Cushing as George Wilson, Katherine Growdon as Myrtle Wilson, James Maddalena as Meyer Wolfsheim, Charles Blandy as the Radio Singer, and Donald Wilkinson, Dana Whiteside, and Lynn Torgove in three smaller roles.
The chorus was also strong and the orchestra, under Turner’s sensitive direction, conveyed both the period charms and the quasi-expressionistic energy in this score. One among many instrumental highlights was the interlude prior to the climactic Plaza Hotel scene of Act II, the astringent yet rhythmically charged music building to a white heat. We all know what the future holds for these characters and their outsize dreams. Here again, so does Harbison’s orchestra.
At the afternoon’s end, both the composer and performers won a giant ovation from a packed Jordan Hall. It was a major victory for Emmanuel Music, and a hopeful turn in the checkered reception history of this opera. The full orchestra version will receive another concert performance, with Emmanuel forces, this summer (July 11) at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall.