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Classical 101

The Great Gatsby Is Back On Stage As Well

Wherever you look these days you'll find the billboards with a doe-eyed Leonardo di Caprio gazing before a glitzy roaring 20s backdrop straight out of the MGM warehouses in the newest film version of The Great Gatsby. Those of us of a certain age remember a hugely hyped and hugely bad film of Gatsby from the mid-70s, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. All style, no meat. I haven't seen the Leo version-and I like him. We'll see. Remember Y2K?  Where were you on January 1, 2000? I was in the Metropolitan Opera house for a matinée of, wait for it, The Great Gatsby, a new opera by John Harbison. The Metropolitan was trying to edge away from the Mozart-Verdi-Wagner Puccini patina of greatest hits by commissioning new operas from American composers. They came, they sang and they got lost. Undeservedly so. Harbison's opera was revived last week by Boston's Emmanuel Music. Harbison had been Artistic Director of this fantastic ensemble, housed in the Back Bay's venerable Emmanuel Church. Harbison's previous work include a wonderful violin concerto, the Mirabai Songs, and the Pulitzer prize-winning cantata The Flight into Egypt. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhiVEKOp-gs Gatsby world premiered at the Met in December 1999. There were 12 more performances over two seasons. Mark Lamos did the production. You couldn't ask for a better cast: Dawn Upshaw, Jerry Hadley, Susan Graham and in her Met debut, the peerless Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. James Levine conducted. The critics were respectful: "The Great Gatsby may be a work in progress, or it just may need getting used to-or both. And what other recent opera sent people home humming these tunes?" Like many new operas, Gatsby had a good run and disappeared. The score is by no means a failure. It's lush and sexy and the vocal lines are grateful, as befits a Pulitzer prize-winning composer for the voice. Maybe the faux 20s music discouraged the critics. Not me. There's a lot of fun and great color, particularly in the band scene in Act II.  One thing I noticed was that the orchestral writing all had meaning. Too often composers are "filling in" when they lose the thread of the story trying to be creative. Good for Emmanuel Music for bringing Gatsby back. This opera rewards repeated hearing. The Met showed such confidence in the initial production. There is no reason to delay a revival.