Between Baz Luhrmann’s recent film The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby currently at Sadler’s Wells, and Elevator Repair Service’s circulation-testing, eight-hour Gatz at the Noël Coward Theatre last year, Londoners such as myself could be forgiven for feeling all Gatsbied out (in truth, Gatz could probably have achieved that by itself). This perfect storm of Gatsbys seems to be pure coincidence – neither 2012 nor 2013 is a significant anniversary, either for the novel or Fitzgerald himself – so anyone asking why no major opera houses joined the party by staging John Harbison’s operatic treatment of the story could be answered that there was no reason for there to be a party in the first place. Still, if you can’t have an extravagant and unnecessary party in celebration of Gatsby, then when can you?
When Harbison’s The Great Gatsby was first performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1999, having been commissioned by them to celebrate James Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company, Harbison overheard an audience member saying he wished the composer could write "tunes as beautiful as those old songs he quotes". This was both an unintentional compliment to Harbison, who had of course written the 1920s-style jazz songs himself, and an unfair slur on the rest of the work – whilst undeniably modern, showing influences of Berg and Britten (the latter especially in the way the popular songs are incorporated into the score, reminiscent of Act III of Peter Grimes), the music is always approachable, never harsh just for the sake of burnishing its modernist credentials. Harbison describes himself primarily as a "jazzologist" and his influences, especially (though not only) in this piece, are as much Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin as your actual classical composers. The libretto, also by Harbison (apart from the words to the songs, supplied by Murray Horwitz), distils Fitzgerald’s story with economy and skill, focusing more on the love story than social commentary – Tom Buchanan’s being a white supremacist, for example, is dealt with in a single (and not very explicit) line.
If the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music were stepping into big shoes in taking this on, giving a concert performance of the work at the New England Conservatory, Boston, they approached it with confidence that proved more than justified. Harbison supplements the orchestra with a banjo, tuba, piano and "trap" (i.e. percussion) set. This group, presented as an onstage band for staged performances, are occasionally given the floor, usually when one of the characters supposedly turns on the radio – in an ingenious touch, the vocalist sings (or rather croons) through a megaphone to provide suitable distortion.
The excellent cast do what they can within the concert (but in costume) format, interacting with each other and on occasion the audience, David Kravitz’s Nick Carraway raising a sardonic eyebrow to us at the notion that Tom Buchanan’s wife being Catholic is the reason he won’t leave her for Myrtle. Kravitz is an engaging narrator and vocally more than up to the job, saving his best for his final declaration that, sick of these decadent east coast folk, he’s heading back to the "middle west". Fitzgerald describes Tom Buchanan as having a "husky tenor" voice, and tenor Alex Richardson here was vocally and dramatically excellent.
Gordon Gietz makes a fresh-faced and sympathetic Gatsby, and his shady business partner Wolfshiem is the wonderful James Maddalena, most famous as Nixon in the Met’s Nixon in China – one wished he had more to do here. Krista River as Carraway’s girlfriend Jordan Baker is the best of the women, fresh, lyrical and characterful. It’s impossible to judge Charles Blandy’s operatic voice from what he’s required to do here as the Radio Singer, but he does it with enormous panache.
Vocal honours, however, must go to David Cushing as George Wilson, whose voice is a force of nature – his bio in the programme doesn’t list any Wagner roles, but that’s surely where he’s headed if he wants it.
Conductor Ryan Turner approached this difficult work with poise and skill and the orchestra responded in kind – only the chorus occasionally sounded a little under rehearsed, but it was gratifying that they remembered to act rather than just parking and barking.
By my reckoning the next significant anniversary will be 2022, the centenary of the book’s setting. But I sincerely hope that opera companies won’t wait for that excuse to stage this thoroughly engaging and refreshingly approachable modern opera.