Emmanuel Music gives a belated yet powerful Boston premiere for Harbison’s “Great Gatsby”

May 13, 2013 at 5:49 pm

By David Wright

Devon Guthrie as Daisy Buchanan and Gordon Gietz in the title role in Emmanuel Music’s presentation of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.” Photo: Julian Bullitt

Even while demonstrating yet again how stoutly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s delicate novel The Great Gatsby resists adaptation into other media, Emmanuel Music under Ryan Turner and 12 vocal soloists made spectacular sounds Sunday afternoon with a vibrant performance of John Harbison’s opera version of the story.

Like the dance band in Fitzgerald’s description, the ensemble that stuffed the stage of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was “no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums.” And much else besides.

No doubt some in the audience remembered the first time Emmanuel Music ever assembled an orchestra this big, for a performance of two scenes from The Great Gatsby at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in 1997. But since the last Metropolitan Opera performances in 2002, the opera has been heard only in reduced-orchestra versions.

Not surprisingly, listeners packed Jordan Hall on Sunday to hear the composer’s latest take on this ambitious work, with its full scoring restored, in the opera’s first complete Boston performance.

Also not surprisingly, with the absence of operatic scenery, lighting, stage action, and even (in some cases) acting, that massive orchestra, Harbison’s imaginative writing for it, and Turner’s vigorous wielding of it became the real stars of the day.

Not that there wasn’t sizable talent to be found in the assortment of singers enacting the roles, some of whom seemed vocally to hail from the opera house and others from the world of cantata and oratorio that is Emmanuel’s home turf.

Tenor Alex Richardson gave the most vivid performance of the night, all jutting jaw and smoldering aggression as Daisy Buchanan’s husband Tom. He was aided by having some opera-size passions to play and a taut, ringing voice to match.

Gordon Gietz came to the title role with a more modestly-endowed tenor sound, which somehow suited the way both novelist and composer move the character of Gatsby in and out of focus, an inscrutable hero one moment and a fumbling lover and wheeler-dealer the next.

Harbison did grant Gatsby one moment of utter clarity, the soliloquy “Everyone was here but the one that matters,” sung while gazing across the water at the green light on Daisy’s dock. Capturing the moment’s perfectly American mixture of aspiration and nostalgia, Gietz’s voice soared effortlessly over piquant woodwind harmonies.

If Gietz seemed to sing small sometimes, the hall-filling baritone of David Kravitz often felt too big for the role of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s observer in the shadows. As the narrator of the novel, Nick is a stand-in for the author himself. Mostly shorn of that function in the opera, the character becomes a sort of Horatio to Gatsby’s Hamlet, with some Leporello thrown in as he arranges the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy.

Kravitz played the part as an amiable cipher at first, but later summoned up expressions of humor and concern as the plot unfolded around him. If he pushed his forte too hard at times, he was effective in dialogue with the other singers.

An even greater diversity of vocal and acting styles was evident in the female roles. One could question whether Fitzgerald’s novel really contains a part for a Met-style lyric soprano; in any case, Harbison had little choice but to assign that role to the book’s love interest, the whimsical, elusive Daisy.

The composer left many of Daisy’s charming non sequiturs in his libretto, but didn’t do much with them musically. On Sunday, soprano Devon Guthrie didn’t either, but her stand-and-sing-it approach was redeemed by the firm foundation and expressive beauty of her voice in all registers, and she was deeply affecting in her nostalgic set-piece, “Where is the old warm world?”

In contrast, mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon was thoroughly in character as Myrtle Wilson, the garage-man’s wife who thinks Tom Buchanan will sweep her off to a life of glamour and parties. Everything about her physical presence and her slightly quivery voice said yearning.

The exotic character of Jordan Baker, the female athlete (a rare bird for 1925) with the cool manner and androgynous name, evidently fascinated both Fitzgerald and the novel’s narrator. Playing it cool is a tough assignment for an opera singer, and portraying an athlete while parked behind a music stand is tougher still, but mezzo-soprano Krista River did her best with it in a clear, strong voice with many subtle touches of expression. Like Kravitz as Nick, she did much to advance the narrative, particularly in her gripping monologue (lifted straight from the book) “Five years ago I knew them both.”

In vivid smaller roles, David Cushing brought appropriately raw bass power to the wronged garage owner George Wilson, and, in the role of the crooked gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, James Maddalena echoed his famously haunted and unctuous portrayal of Richard Nixon, to telling effect.

Lynn Torgrove as the Tango Singer, Donald Wilkinson as Gatsby’s father, and Dana Whiteside as the Minister were all effective in their brief appearances.

The Emmanuel Music Chorus gave the music a charge whenever it was onstage, whether as party guests, to narrate an auto accident, or just to sing one of the 20s-style pop songs Harbison composed (with witty lyrics by Murray Horwitz) and wove through the score as a sly commentary on the action.

As the Radio Singer, tenor Charles Blandy warbled those songs pleasingly through a cone-shaped megaphone, a bit of authentic early performance practice sure to please the discerning Boston audience.

Still, whatever the merits of the singers, it was hard on Sunday not to think about that powerful orchestra, as an emotional backdrop to the opera’s action and especially in the vivid interludes between scenes.

Novelist and composer alike understood the theme of restlessness in this American story. The characters are always traveling somewhere—West Egg to East Egg, Long Island to New York City, back East to out West, the Midwest to wartime Europe.

Harbison’s orchestral imagination extended not just to cars and trains, but to different kinds of trains: the clank, hiss and jerk of the Long Island Rail Road, the hum and distant horn of the transcontinental express. As brilliantly rendered by Turner and his players, the exhilarating “on the move” feeling of those episodes stood in stark contrast with the emotional traps the opera’s characters found themselves in.

The performance will be repeated July 11 in Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood. bso.org; 617-266-1200. emmanuelmusic.org; 617-536-3356.

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One Response to “Emmanuel Music gives a belated yet powerful Boston premiere for Harbison’s “Great Gatsby””

  1. Posted May 13, 2013 at 9:37 pm by Tom

    This reviewer got it right in my opinion. The orchestra is the main character in this opera. And why not. The novel provides the backdrop, but the opera stands on its own as a new form, not beholden to our expectations based on our experience of the novel. Harbison’s music, including, but not limited to the period tunes, is the most inventive and deeply moving music I have encountered in a long time.