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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

The Great Gatsby (1999),
Text Writer
Libretto by the composer, after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
2 Hours 20 Minutes
SATB chorus
Soprano, 2 Tenors, 2 Mezzo sopranos, Baritone, Bass
Alternate Orchestration
2(pic).2(ca).2(Ebcl,ssx)+bcl.2(cbn)/2.1(Bb).1.1/3perc(timp)/pf/bjo/str (min32221) - reduction by Jacques Desjardins
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Programme Note
John Harbison The Great Gatsby (1999),
First performance:
December 20, 1999
Metropolitan Opera
Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Jerry Hadley, tenor; Mark Baker, tenor; Dwayne Croft, baritone; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
James Levine, conductor
New York, NY

Ensemble Parallele
reduced orchestration: Act 2 Scene 1
Ensemble Parallele
reduced orchestration: Act 2 Scenes 2 & 3
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the debut of James Levine. Commission made possible by a gift from The Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation.

Composer note:
The Great Gatsby is a music-driven opera in which the composer bullied the librettist as they worked together. Every choice was in favor of musical opportunities; Fitzgerald's novel was "respected" only insofar as it furthered the musical design. This might be expected from a composer who found opera with his ears, at an early age, on the Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts.

The Great Gatsby is a generously proportioned opera based on a very compact novel. Certain dramatic elements in the story are more confrontational when staged. "Where did you find all those car crashes, gangsters, people behaving so unpleasantly," asked some who remembered from the novel mainly its fragrant atmosphere. "The room at the Plaza couldn't have been that small," said others, startled to see and hear what may have been so differently imagined.

I take it as a sign of interest, of curiosity to witness it again that the question I've been asked most often is: "What did you cut?"

I believe my pieces have a lymphatic system, nerves, veins. Surgery presents dangers to the body's integrity so I tried to make my cuts instinctively and integrally. They correspond to the places that concerned me the first time I heard the piece through, at the dress rehearsal. Act One: a "symphonic" part of the Overture, some of the choral prelude to scene 3, a sizable reflective passage in scene 4. Act Two: intricate incisions and concisions in scenes 2, 4 and 6. As reluctantly as I parted with these minutes, the process was ultimately an affirmation of my conviction about The Great Gatsby.

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First-time audience members will profit from knowing that the opera differs from the novel in many ways. Opera as a medium mythologizes and in many ways exaggerates. Myrtle, and her surrounding world, are expanded, to ground the theme of longing in real sensuality (suggesting that the real mate for Gatsby, one he would never seek, is the woman eventually killed by his car). The meeting between Daisy and Gatsby, after five years, takes place before our eyes and ears. The theme of the Midwesterner as outsider, Nick's crucial question, dominates the beginning and the end of the piece. Gatsby is not shadowy and mysterious, he must be heard; he even regales his rival with a mostly phony account of his early life.

The characters expand with the space the music creates for them. The Great Gatsby begins with a substantial overture which presents some of the central musical and dramatic themes. Ambient music — radio and party singers and bands — has a dominant role. Near the end of the opera something very unusual happens: The rule is — when the hero dies close the curtain as soon as possible. But this piece is not strictly about the hero, it is also about our remarkable country, its mystery and possibility, seen through the screen of Gatsby's own mystery, his own sense of possibility. Thus, an epilogue in which some threads are briefly tied, new meanings opened up.

Those whose ears are enlisted to that point, experience indicates, will remain engaged until the green light fades.

— John Harbison

Fitzgerald's magnificent portrait of the Jazz Age — in all its idealism, hopes, excesses, nostalgia, and decadence — remains one of the most widely read American novels. It tells of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan, married to brutish Tom. Daisy's cousin Nick Carraway shares with Gatsby proximity and background — veterans of the Great War arrived from the Midwest to seek their fortunes. Gatsby's lavish parties contrast with the intimate, intricate web of the protagonists' relationships; their reckless actions turn an American dream into something more akin to a Greek tragedy.
Cast List:
   DAISY BUCHANAN, a rich young socialite: Soprano
   JAY GATSBY, a wealthy young man of mysterious background: Tenor
   TOM BUCHANAN, Daisy's husband, a former athlete: Tenor
   NICK CARRAWAY, her cousin, a young stockbroker: Baritone
   JORDAN BAKER, her friend, a golfer: Mezzo-Soprano
   GEORGE WILSON, a garage mechanic: Bass
   MYRTLE WILSON, his wife: Mezzo-Soprano
   TANGO SINGER: Mezzo-Soprano
   MEYER WOLFSHIEM, a shady businessman: Bass-Baritone
   HENRY GATZ, Gatsby's father: Baritone
   MINISTER: Bass-Baritone
   Chorus of party-goers

Act I, Scene 1
Nick visits Daisy and Tom and meets her friend Jordan. Daisy tells Nick she misses the "old warm world" from her youth.

Act I, Scene 2
Tom drags Nick to Wilson's garage to "meet his girl," Myrtle. When she talks about Daisy, Tom hits her.

Act I, Scene 3
Amidst the revelry of Gatsby's party, he asks Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy. Afterwards, Gatsby recalls their former love, and vows to win her back.

Act I, Scene 4
Nick and Jordan flirt as they arrange tea. When Daisy and Gatsby meet, their initial awkwardness quickly dissipates.

Act II, Scene 1
Another party, where rumors about Gatsby circulate. Alone with Daisy, he tries to convince her that they can be reunited. Tom finds them and invites Gatsby to his house.

Act II, Scene 2
Bored and hot, the protagonists decide to go to the Plaza Hotel. After Daisy and Gatsby leave together, Tom vents his annoyance.

Act II, Scene 3
Tom forces Daisy to make a choice. Tortured, she decides to stay with Tom, who, exultant, contemptuously suggests Daisy and Gatsby return together to Long Island.

Act II, Scene 4
Myrtle, thinking she sees Tom, rushes outside. A crash is heard. Tom, Nick, and Jordan enter, revealing that Myrtle has been killed. When Tom identifies the death car as Gatsby's, Wilson is determined to take revenge.

Act II, Scene 5
Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was the driver. As he waits for word from Daisy, Wilson enters and shoots him.

Act II, Scene 6
None of Gatsby's former friends or guests attend funeral, save Nick and his father, who reflect.

Act I Vol 2 (full score)
Act II Vol 1 (full score)
Act II Vol 2 (full score)

Act I Vol 1 (reduced orchestration)
Act I Vol 2 (reduced orchestration)
Act II Vol 1 (reduced orchestration)
Act II Vol 2 (reduced orchestration)

Vocal Score

The Metropolitan Opera commissioned John Harbison's opera "The Great Gatsby" to celebrate the 25th anniversary of James Levine's company debut. As a musician, Mr. Levine believes firmly in "The Great Gatsby." He is demonstrating that belief by bringing it back this season. Since its premiere, "The Great Gatsby" has gone through a process of revision that should be a model for all new operas. The Lyric Opera of Chicago presented it in 2000 in Mark Lamos's original Met production. For that revival Mr. Harbison made trims here and there and adjusted tempo indications. Those changes have been retained for this Met revival and while they are not that noticeable, the opera has a tauter flow and greater urgency. "The Great Gatsby" is a fully modern work. The score is rich with lyrical outpourings and extended ensembles that acknowledge tradition. Throughout the work, the music is distinctively Mr. Harbison's: richly chromatic harmonic tweaked with dissonance; multilayered textures where lyrical lines dominate but inner voices and rustling figurations stir below. There is raucously mechanistic music to conjure the blue-collar world, where Tom (Daisy's powerful husband) meets his mistress Myrtle Wilson, married to George, the garage mechanic. Mr. Harbison's original evocations of 1920s dance music and popular songs, which characters keep tuning in on the radio or dancing to at Gatsby's parties are ingeniously done (complete with song lyrics written in the style of the time by Murray Horwitz).
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times (2002),01/01/0001
...Harbison has written music more substantial and interesting than that of most literature operas. "The Great Gatsby" was commissioned for the Met to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of James Levine, who conducted its potpourri of styles with unerring resource of instinct. Pastel shadings in the orchestra were built and sustained with the same poise and panache that gave the right lilt and tone to the score's popular songs. For the latter, Harbison worked with lyricist Murray Horwitz, a man of protean talents, who captured the spirit of the Jazz Age just as surely as did the composer. Writing with easy assurance in both his own idiom and the quasi-popular, Harbison makes no self-conscious effort to blend the two; they change places naturally, as they would do in a film score. The composer uses harmony conservatively enough to reach a general audience, yet he often confounds one's expectations in a sly, personal and telling way. In vocal lines, he makes the words clear, sometimes reaching out in attractive melodic arcs but favoring line-by-line nuance over simple, singable melody. ...the spirit of characters and story is treated with respectful insight. What the composer has not done is to refashion the material according to a conventional operatic formula of lyricism and crisis/resolution with dialogue, digression and detail pared to a minimum. The closest he comes is in commentary by the chorus of guests at Gatsby's parties, in solos for the principlals and in an effective quintet that spins out of Daisy's aria in the hotel-suite scene, when Gatsby and Daisy's husband, Tom, confront each other.
John W. Freeman, Opera News,01/01/0001
Between Gatsby's parties -- two of which feature prominently in the opera -- and music streaming from radios, there's a constant backdrop of fox-trots, two-steps, tangos and rumbas that do as much as Jane Greenwood's costumes to establish the piece's period tone. The songs themselves are Harbison's own, with lyrics by Murray Horwitz, and they're dazzlingly good exercises in period style (Horwitz, in a program note, compares the process of writing these songs to making antiques). Better still is the way the composer grafts his character's sung dialogue onto those Jazz Age rhythms and harmonies. The precedents are the ball that ends Act 1 of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and the opening scene of Verdi's "Rigoletto," and Harbison's effort belongs in that company -- especially in the opera's most powerful scene, the party that begins Act 2. This is the first time that Daisy, who has just reconnected with Gatsby after their aborted romance five years earlier, comes to Gatsby's house for one of his extravagant bashes. While the assembled guests dance a lively fox-trot, Daisy's husband, Tom, vents his suspicions about Gatsby to the perpetual onlooker Nick (just as faceless here as in the novel), and Gatsby and Daisy inhabit a world apart, where the strains of the party can only just be heard throught the gauzy mist of their forbidden love. It's a display of remarkable virtuosity, and it's not the only one. The overture, written in 1985 as a stand-alone orchestral piece, captures the emotional essence of the piece with brilliant efficiency. The tender lyricism of some of the set pieces -- Daisy's first soliloquy, Gatsby's final reverie recalling the magic of their first love, and even Nick's oddly minimalist evocation of a winter train ride through Wisconsin -- can be heart-wrenching in its power.
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle,01/01/0001
Much has been made of Harbison's attempt in his opera to evoke the flavor of popular music of the 1920s, and in this he is largely successful. Numerous fox-trots, dance music and songs redolent of the era are heard either on the radio or sung by a Rudy Vallee-type vocalist at Gatsby's parties. Here Harbison has deftly captured the period flavor with its jazzy melodic contours and tinny arrangements, aided by Murray Horwitz's equally stylish and idiomatic song lyrics. ...The composer's surging, restless music for the opera at large often ventures into harmonically complex regions verging on atonality. There is much to admire in Harbison's whirlwind instrumental skill and audacious orchestration, including his writing for brass and winds, and much imaginative writing for an array of percussion.
Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Tribune,01/01/0001
Those who admired the work were taken with the music itself, which at its best revealed Mr. Harbison's imagination, ingenuity, sense of color, keen ear for pungent harmony and skill at evoking jazz and pop music of the 1920's. ...I find the music continually rewarding. The lazy, lapping duet for the two women friends, Daisy and Jordan, is haunting. The extended ensemble scenes are intricate and richly textured. The mix of vernacular and modern musical styles is almost always seamless. Playing through the piano-vocal score at the keyboard affords musical pleasures on every page. ...Most likely, as with "Parsifal," "Pelléas et Mélisande" and "Der Rosenkavalier," it may take time, decades even, for opera audiences to figure out whether Mr. Harbison has gotten it right in terms of pacing and length after all. This presumes, of course, that the work will stay around for a while. It deserves to.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times (1999),01/01/0001
Harbison's "Gatsby" streaked with magnificence....Frequently breathtaking...the score evokes the novel's boozy, gaudy atmosphere, and preserves the fragile musicality of Fitzgerald's prose. The novel, full of lazy betrayals and bleary banter, does not seem like fodder for an opera. But there is music in the satiny moonlight, money in Daisy Buchanan's voice and a measure of melodrama toward the end. In the opera, pop songs in the style of the 1920s (elegantly sung by Matthew Polenzani) blare from radios and bandstands, and seep into the fabric of the score. Harbison molds the jittery rhythms, tangy chords and veneer of sentimentality of early jazz with more piercing, expressionistic gestures. The curtain comes up on Daisy and Jordan Baker reclining on chaise longues, their vocal lines intertwined in feline indolence, the orchestra locked into an accompaniment of exquisite immobility. When that scene returns to open the second act, a heavy heat has transformed languor into prostration, and the music is suffused with quiet fury. The opera is at its best in these fraught moments -- at Gatsby's parties, when guests begin to unravel, or in the Manhattan hotel suite, where the rage of the Buchanan's foundering marriage works in poignant counterpoint with a wedding downstairs. In that searing scene, Mendelssohn's march emerges into an original fox-trot and both tunes waft into the forlorn conversation. The complex but fleet ensemble summarizes the tensions of American culture in this century, between blithness and anxiety, commercial entertainment and lofty art.
Justin Davidson, Newsday,01/01/0001
John Harbison's highly anticipated "Great Gatsby" received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera Monday night, and it stood up well under the kind of scrutiny such an occasion invites. It is a deftly made work...that gives us all the traditional ingredients: carefully gauged changes of pace, extended arias, neat ensembles, vivid choruses, and, in particular, a number of telling orchestral interludes that underline the narrative ...Harbison creates the spirit of those times with a sure hand, giving us two big party scenes that take place on Gatsby's famous lawn, alive with dancers, frantic gyrations of the Charleston and the tango, filtered through just the right amount of slightly sardonic, contemporary harmony. The individual roles -- the mysterious and questionable Gatsby; the giddy Daisy, whom he is pursuing; her overbearing husband, Tom; the cool observers Nick and Jordan -- reach beyond period styles. Their arias arch and soar, and if they do not immediately establish much in the way of a distinctive melodic profile, they do make good and sympathetic use of the voices involved. Harbison knows the human instrument.
Shirley Fleming, New York Post,01/01/0001
It is perhaps mildly unfair to review a new opera without seeing it, but listening to the music undistracted by stage action is a good test of its quality. ...Harbison wrote his own libretto, although the lyrics for the popular songs were by Murray Horwitz. Very wisely, Harbison provided the music for them himself -- evidently he had decided it would be too dangerous to quote Kern, Porter and Gershwin. The pastiche songs are clever and fit in well with the rest of the music. ...Gatsby would suit Glyndebourne. Harbison's melodic gift may be modest much of the time, but it is effective and when it blossoms -- as in Gatsby's Everyone Was Here Except the One Who Mattered, at least two of Daisy's arias and the haunting close of Act 1 -- it is genuinely operatic. The orchestration is unfailingly attractive and always allows the words to come through. The Jazz Age party scenes -- with on-stage band of banjo, string bass and saxophones -- are piquant, and the scene where Daisy and Jordan listen to the radio is nostalgia-plus. The final tragedy is skilfully handled.
Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph,01/01/0001
Out of one national classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," John Harbison has fashioned another, one of the best operas composed by an American to date. ...The composer wrote his own effective libretto, most of it incorporating Fitzgerald's language; in creating parallels, interconnections, deep structure, Harbison has set it up for music....The printed libretto left one wondering how Harbison would cope with the rest of the story once Gatsby is dead and Daisy fled; his response was to supply some of the greatest music in any American opera, particularly Nick's aria about inner journeys, with an accompaniment that clicks along like wheels over metal tracks and the distant sound of a train whistle. ...It is hard to think of another American opera composed with a comparable degree of musical sophistication and sheer virtuoso compositional chops. Many kinds of music interweave in "Gatsby." Harbison takes a Haydenesque delight in musical tone-painting: There is weather in his music, and automobiles, radios, and ringing telephones -- and that train. There is period music in a series of '20s-style dance tunes and pop songs (with lyrics by Murray Horwitz)....The pop music defines the character's milieu and social status (Myrtle, the wife of the garage mechanic, sings the blues). The orchestration is colorful, various, and luminous. The dialogue bounces off the rhythms, tricky and unstable when unmoored from the songs; strong feelings and unfulfilled longings deconstruct the stable intervals and harmonies of the songs. There are arias...and a glorious love duet for Gatsby and Daisy. Some of the ensembles rival the great Mozart finales or the end of Act 2 of "Die Meistersinger" in complexity of simultaneous events. Above all, Harbison is flexible. The music moves easily from scene-painting to exposition to dialogue, arioso, ensemble, and back again. There is immediate appeal in the score but also a network of internal reference so intricate it will take years of repeated hearings to understand....Allusive as the music sometimes is, the language is by now entirely Harbison's own -- as is the compassionate generosity of feeling the language expresses.
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe,01/01/0001
"Gatsby" is a thoroughly modern opera, with the dark side of the novel at center stage. The enormously sophisticated score captures the sleek, tinny surface of the Jazz Age, and it also manages to translate into sound the volcanic sensuality and longing that drive the brooding millionaire Jay Gatsby and his beloved Daisy Buchanan into bitterness and pain. Bright foxtrots and torch songs compete with full throated orchestral angst, but eventually the angst drowns the cheery pop tunes in darkness. Fitzgerald's novel (1925) has repeatedly defied those who have tried to bring it to the theater. Its principal characters are thin and mysterious, projections of narrator Nick Carraway's confusions and desires. The very obliqueness of the narrative, with its flashbacks and doled-out bits of revelation, is critical to the tone of the book. Mr. Harbison has straightened out the story and telescoped it. He has also added meat to the bones of the two central characters, making them more operatic. In other words, he has made some things clear, but the clarity has brought an ungrateful glare to the tale. ...The Daisy of the novel is shallow and insubstantial. The operatic role was written for the soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose mix of healthy self-assurance and vulnerability takes Fitzgerald's brittle, rather unappealing heroine into a new realm. Her little trills on words like "Tom" or "revolution" show her playful facade, and her languid duets with her friend Jordan Baker (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) are masterpieces of vocal loveliness and character painting. This Daisy also has a soul. Mr. Harbison has written his most beautiful arias for her, exploiting the warmth of Ms. Upshaw's lower register as a kind of speaking voice, as well as her yearning, liquid high notes. Ms. Upshaw's experience with classic American popular songs shows here: For her, Mr. Harbison has become a kind of modern Gershwin, giving voice to Daisy's deep longings, in timeless arias that soar above the period numbers he has written to be emitted from the radios and bandstands. When Daisy is onstage, the show light up. ...The astonishing mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson filled the Met with Myrtle's earthy desires. Her two arias, one in each act, were the hottest moments in the show. Her rhythmic taunting cry of "Daisy! Daisy!," which makes Tom slug her and break her nose, is electric. ...Mr. Harbison let the orchestra, led by James Levine, do much of his dramatic work. The wonderful period popular songs, to lyrics by Murray Horwitz, set off surging explosions of feeling, and the orchestral interludes between scenes pushed violently forward. Orchestration choices, such as the high strings that signal Gatsby's fantasy world, gave dramatic clues, as did the clever touches -- a telephone ringing, a car horn.
Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal,01/01/0001
"Gatsby" is, in purely musical terms, a considerable speaks in its own individual and original language. In the annals of modern Met premieres, only "Vanessa" rivals it for substance. Here, for once, is a new opera that cannot be summed up with a checklist of borrowed tunes. Harbison's personality is present from the start: tonal chords grind against each other in dissonant formations; the music picks up steam in insistent, irregular rhythms; attenuated melodies rise and fade; a newly minted nineteen-twenties tune twirls in a vaguely surreal harmonic space. Harbison commands a very wide array of styles, all of them filtered through his own spiky, polytonal vocabulary. At one moment, he indulges in sighing Renaissance polyphony or chugging Bachian counterpoint. Then he writes an expert, hummable torch song or tango. At his best, he creates music of brittle brilliance and mobile complexity. ...What's best about this "Gatsby" is its ensembles, its crowd scenes, its costumes, its look. Michael Yeargan's sets, Duane Schuler's lighting, and Jane Greenwood's costumes mix soft twilight tones and bold flapper styles. In the party scenes at Gatsby's mansion, Chinese lanterns glimmer in front of a full moon and the famous "green light" across the bay. Robert La Fosse, the choreographer, stages some neat two-step dancing. Mark Lamos, the director, periodically shifts the whole cast into dreamlike slow motion. When the onstage band starts up one of Harbison's ersatz jazz numbers -- with witty rhyming lyrics by Murray Horwitz -- Fitzgerald's whole decadent West Egg world comes to life.
Alex Ross, The New Yorker,01/01/0001
..."The Great Gatsby" strikes me as the first new opera produced by the company in living memory that has definite survival potential. The last one I can remember is Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," which had its American premiere at the Met back in 1953, and look how long it took that masterpiece to become a repertory staple. What gives me heart in this case is the fact that Harbison, like Stravinsky and virtually every other important composer who has written a successful opera, takes full charge and makes all the major creative decisions. The fact remains: Music is still the determining factor in opera, and in "The Great Gatsby," however one responds to it, the music sets the tone, defines the characters, and drives the dramatic action. ...The entire two-act opera itself is a cunningly organized structure of dramatic parallels and musical interconnections, its symmetries as subtle as those in Berg's "Wozzeck" and its tried-and-true operatic devices applied as surely as those that animate great operas from Monteverdi to Britten. The opening scene is a beautifully written piece of operatic exposition, introducing Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom, her best friend Jordan Baker, and the wryly observant Nick Carraway in the Buchanan's rose-colored drawing room in East Egg, Long Island. Their conversation is easy, melodic, and informational without being excessively wordy or musically dry, as each set piece develops naturally out of the discussion. The first mention of Gatsby triggers Daisy's memories of her former lover, generating a recurrent and intriguingly varied orchestral motif. This twisting theme is often associated with the beckoning green light of Daisy's boat house, but what is strictly a color symbol in the book is here an even more powerfully allusive musical one, eventually standing for all the characters' unattainable hope and longings. The theme leads directly into a languid Straussian duet with Jordan, followed by a nostalgic aria for Daisy ("Where is the old warm world?") and a spirited quartet that ends the scene on a high note of expectation. For me, at least, musical interest never lags, right up to Carraway's rhapsodic eulogy over Gatsby's coffin, a gorgeous piece of vocal writing and a gift to a lyric baritone who can spin out a sweet and shimmering high G-natural. As knowledgeable about twenties pop styles as he is about idiomatic operatic composition and what the voice can do best, Harbison weaves period dances into the musical fabric of the score with extraordinary skill. The seams never show, either in the frantic shimmies of the two big party scenes or in the even steamier moments when the earthy mechanic's wife, Myrtle Wilson, conducts her fateful bump-and-grind trysts with Tom. Nowhere is there an extraneous note or a musical passage that is not commenting actively on some aspect of the plot, characters, or mood of the piece.
Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine,01/01/0001
John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" -- which has just had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera -- is a work of skill, subtlety, and charm. Devising his own libretto from the canonical Scott Fitzgerald novel, the composer managed to retain the author's humanity, his wonder, and his nostalgia. Indeed, the opera, like the novel, is doubly nostalgic: exploring a past, the 1920s, in which the characters are themselves recalling a lost, pre-Great War time. But Harbison's music is more than an exercise in wistfulness. The brief orchestral prelude to the first act makes his intentions clear: the first pages are aggressive, sinister, implying evil; then there is a shift to the bouncy, rackety popular music of the 1920s, which runs through the rest of the opera. But these foxtrots and two-steps are heard through the sensitive filter of Harbison's own taste, magically blending the atmosphere of menace with the hectic light-heartedness of the vernacular tunes. While the big party scenes at the Gatsby palatial mansion are an important visual and musical ingredient of the work, Harbison's "Great Gatsby" frequently assumes a more intimate, conversational tone; and here, the composer conveys the subtext of each scene, whether the women are drawing complaints about the heat, or the men quarreling or discussing booze. But all is not talk. In the first act, Daisy's lament for the old South ("Where is the old warm world") illustrates Harbison's equivalent of an aria, or pehaps of a scena, and later, two splendid solo scenes for Gatsby further confirm the composer's genuine lyrical gift. The chorus is effectively used; and the pop songs (lyrics by Murray Horwitz) are idiomatically delivered by Matthew Polenzani. These songs deserve a life of their own outside the opera house.
William Weaver, Financial Times,01/01/0001
"The Great Gatsby" is, above all, an opera of great intelligence, subtlety and expertise....F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous moody novel may have failed in various attempts to stage it as a straight play, television production or film, its soulless Jazz Age characters more poetic ideas than flesh and blood. But Harbison has sensed that Fitzgerald's "blankets of excellent prose," as the novelist once described his writing, will not resist the poetic language of music, and he has provided it. Indeed, what Harbison's "Gatsby" does well, it does very well. Much pre-premiere attention has been drawn to the use of period dance tunes -- fox trots, rumbas, tangos and the like -- that Harbison has written and incorporated into the score in various ways. It turns out he has a flair for them, bright and beguiling melodies (with terrifically engaging June-moon lyrics written by Murray Horwitz) that are corrupted by the more sinister music that is the real tone of this sobering opera. Harbison is a master at capturing mood, psychology and emotion in his characterful orchestral writing. He is a subversive composer; there is, in his work, always something going on underneath the surface, contradicting or altering the direction you think the music is taking. Consequently, the best thing his opera does is dramatize the subversive nature of the novel, eroding the forced roaring '20s gaiety and emptiness with dark currents. ...[Harbison] has succeeded in creating a straightforward dramatic narrative, with all the properly operatic elements of languid love, hot sex, jealousy, murder, party scenes and a funeral. Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, is just another character but still the focus of the opera, since he is the only one in it who gains some self-knowledge out of the tragedy. Underlying music, however, shows the twisted inner struggles of callous, world-weary Long Islanders, unable to confront their emotions. Fitzgerald wraps his novel in mystery, gradually revealing (and never really explaining) Jay Gatsby, the elusive, corrupt, self-made millionaire whose legitimacy revolves around the acceptance of an early love and another man's wife, the capricious Daisy Buchanan. They are real on the stage before us, but Harbison plays an intricate game of evolving their musical character gradually. ...The Met commissioned "Gatsby" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of James Levine's debut with the company. The opera was his choice, and he conducted it with a fervent attention to every detail. Remarkably, the much celebrated Met orchestra played it as if it lived with American music every day.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,01/01/0001
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