LENOX -- Making a movie out of "The Great Gatsby" is like digging for gold in a seam that has been exhausted by Fitzgerald's novel. Not that that has stopped three movies, including the current bling-infested version, from being made.
There is something about the mood of the book -- the disillusion, the striving for an ideal, however false, that defies literal, visual treatment. So perhaps opera provides a way in, allowing music to limn the overtones and undertows of the characters' tensions.
Something like that must have been in John Harbison's mind when he responded to James Levine's request for a work for the Metropolitan Opera. "The Great Gatsby" had its premiere at the Met in 1999 and, much revised, came to Tanglewood Thursday night in a concert performance by Emmanuel Music, the Boston orchestra and chorus with which Harbison has enjoyed an association as composer and conductor since 1970.
Everybody knows the story. Gatsby, a nobody with an invented past, appears on the Long Island gold coast to reclaim Daisy Buchanan, his long-ago sweetheart. She is now married to the boozer, bruiser and boor Tom Buchanan.
Despite a devoted performance conducted by Ryan Turner, the unstaged performance fell partway into the trap set for film. In the book, Gatsby is larger than life: an impostor (and gangster) who has remade himself in pursuit of a dream. At Tanglewood, as sung by the smooth-voiced Gordon Gietz, Gatsby seemed just another deluded lover.
A peculiar thing happened. The orchestra stole the show. Without stage action, Harbison's angular, recitative-like vocal lines, to his own libretto based on the book, often seemed talky. The parts didn't seem to greatly differentiate one character from the next. The richly, even grandly conceived orchestral part, moving easily between scene-setting and story-telling, commanded more attention.
Harbison's own Jazz Age tunes --- he has played jazz himself -- sounded like the real thing and fit right in. Orchestral interludes vividly foreshadowed catastrophe and illuminated character. Bombast in the orchestra accompanied the bombast of Tom's denunciation of "lowlife" classes.
Act II moved more surely than Act I. But the most vivid characters were, oddly, Daisy and Wilson, the garage owner with whose wife Tom is having some hanky-panky. As sung by a glitter-gowned Devon Guthrie, Daisy, a spoiled rich girl in the book, took on a tragic air. When Gatsby inadvertently gets her killed in the car crash, David Cushing's repeated bellowing of "oh, My God!" as Wilson brought searing emotion to the stage.
Vocally, there were other effective moments, such as a languid duet between Daisy and Jordan lamenting the hottest day of the year in New York. Yet when Nick, a participant rather than observer in the party-driven action, delivered his parting line -- that Tom and Daisy are "a rotten bunch" and Gatsby is better than them and their crowd -- the judgment didn't come with a climactic shock of truth.
By and large, the cast sang well. In the other principal parts, Alex Richardson's voice as Tom, like Gietz' as Gatbsy, needed more punch to convey the turbulence inside these competing wolves. As Nick, David Kravitz' booming voice dominated the other men. Krista River emphasized the sheer sexiness of the golfer Jordan. Emmanuel Music's large orchestral and chorus put plenty of spirit into the show, the chorus appearing as drunken partygoers.
No more than a play or movie, an opera need not be true to its literary parent. But a "Gatsby" without a doomed, mysterious Gatsby just didn't seem a complete "Gatsby."