Mary Jane Leach, Times Union
How does one take on the daunting task of making an opera out of "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic novel about the Roaring '20s? In John Harbison's case, very carefully, working incrementally and with the ability to sustain the germ of an idea over a long timespan, in this case almost 30 years, expanding from an initial orchestral piece (which became the opera's overture), to a full-scale opera mounted by the Metropolitan Opera, with subsequent configurations and polishings. Thursday night's concert performance by the Orchestra and Chorus of Emanuel Music featured a new, tightened score for full orchestra.
Harbison very effectively combined '20s-style pop and jazz songs that he wrote, with lyrics by Murray Horwitz, with more typical contemporary classical writing. After the overture, the two styles of writing tended to alternate, but as the score progressed, they became intermingled. There was almost a slow crossfade effect, so that by the middle of the second act they were indistinguishable from each other. But by the end of the opera, the pop elements had almost disappeared, faded out, reflecting the end of an era.
The orchestral writing was very effective and performed outstandingly. Harbison even wrote sound effects into his score, so that telephones, radios, trains and car horns were played by the orchestra. Two orchestral interludes in the second act, the journeys to and from Manhattan, were the height of this synthesis of styles — stunning to listen to, the two styles indistinguishable from each other.
There was a hierarchy of singing styles, with the chorus singing popular tunes, a Radio Singer (Charles Blandy) using a megaphone to both create an effective muffled radio sound and to recreate the Rudy Vallee style of singing, a Tango Singer (Lynn Torgove), Myrtle (Katherine Growdon) and George Wilson (David Cushing), who sang in a more bluesy, earthy style, and the main characters, who sang in a more typical contemporary classical style.
The least-effective vocal writing was for the expository songs, that became predictable and used the kind of intervals that make it hard for a singer to navigate smoothly. However, there were lyrical arias sung by all of the principals, who all were in fine voice: Daisy Buchanan (Devon Guthrie), Tom Buchanan (Alex Richardson), Nick Carraway (David Kravitz), Jordan Baker, (Krista River), Jay Gatsby (Gordon Gietz, George and Myrtle.
Harbison tends to allocate one note per syllable, which makes the words pass so quickly that it's hard to grasp what is going on without seeing the words, which made the use of surtitles welcome. The most interesting writing was for the ensembles, which tended to be contrapuntal, sometimes with each singer singing different lyrics, a collapsing of the storylines, effective both musically and efficient plot-wise.
This was an excellent production of an important American opera.
Mary Jane Leach is a freelance writer and composer/performer.
"The Great Gatsby"
Who: Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.
Length: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Audience: Full house with audience also on the lawn