An undoubtedly disturbing yet ultimately triumphant Met Porgy and Bess

05/02/2020

United StatesUnited States The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / David Robertson (conductor). Transmitted live from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 1.2.2020. (JPr)

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (c) Ken Howard

Production:

Production – James Robinson
Set designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume designer – Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer – Donald Holder
Projection designer – Luke Halls
Choreographer – Camille A. Brown
Fight director – David Leong

Cast included:

Bess – Angel Blue
Clara – Golda Schultz
Serena – Latonia Moore
Maria – Denyce Graves
Sportin’ Life – Frederick Ballentine
Porgy – Eric Owens
Crown – Alfred Walker
Jake – Donovan Singletary

Live in HD director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD host – Audra McDonald

When this production – first put on by English National Opera (for review click here) – opened the new 2019-20 season it marked the return of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess to the Met after an absence of 29 years. It apparently is now performed in a critically researched and authoritative performance edition of the score coordinated by musicologist Wayne Shirley, currently at the University of Michigan’s Gershwin Initiative.

Is it the first great American opera or more of a Broadway musical? No need to debate this here and anyway I had never seen Porgy and Bess until now. My overall impression of the work – in its current form – is that despite the wonderful songs (‘Summertime’, ‘Bess, You is My Woman Now’, ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’’, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and the triumphalist ‘Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way’) – it is much too long and the longwinded recitative is no help whatsoever when plain dialogue would be much better. What is not in doubt is how much Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes owes to Porgy and Bess and I wonder if he would have ever composed it without its influence. I understand Britten saw a 1942 Broadway production and the similarities with Grimes are self-evident in the sense of alienation of the leading character, the social mores of a somewhat isolated community, and the dramatic use of a storm – a hurricane in Porgy and Bess – as the excuse for an interlude, as well as, a musical device of considerable power. Two recent transmissions from the Met have now suggested that without Porgy and Bess there would be no Peter Grimes, and without Grimes there would have been no Wozzeck (review click here). Something else worthy of being debated but not here and now.

What the Gershwins’ brought us in 1935 is based on Porgy, the 1927 play by the Heywards – DuBose (who wrote the Porgy and Bess libretto with Ira Gershwin) and Dorothy – which was itself adapted from DuBose Heyward’s novel of the same name. It concerns a woman addicted to ‘happy dust’ (cocaine) and bad men. She becomes torn between the love of a disabled beggar, abusive and controlling outlaw Crown, and drug peddling Sportin’ Life. The setting is Catfish Row, an impoverished waterfront community of African Americans in Charleston during the Depression of the 1920s. Between them Serena, Maria and Clara are at the moral and religious heart of this society fighting the corruption wrought by men like Crown and Sportin’ Life. Overall, perhaps there should be too many stereotypes for 2020 sensibilities with all these matriarchs and lowlifes.

The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, took to the stage to make an announcement at the start saying ‘At a time when out spirits are seriously in need of lifting, we are hoping to lift your spirits’. However, for me, Porgy and Bess came over as of its time (as most classic theatre is) and a rather bleak pessimistic affair which was crying out for Bess to be redeemed; or perhaps even a sequel showing Porgy’s journey from Charleston to New York to get Bess back since her inability to refuse ‘happy dust’ makes her follow Sportin’ Life there. Perhaps someone should write one?

James Robinson’s staging has as its backdrop Michael Yeargan’s frequently rotating skeletal set that is serviceable and atmospheric enough. Most of the energy on a packed stage comes from Camille A. Brown’s choreography. Ignoring the occasionally stagey ‘opera ballet’ moments, the fairly randomised exuberant herky-jerky moves were redolent of religious ecstatic dance. Brown introduced her work in this production – during a backstage interview – as showing how ‘It is really about the community, the heartbeat and the rhythms that came out of the black experience. So, it is not about performing the black experience but really showing the authenticity of who we are.’

Why this Porgy and Bess has been such a great success is mainly due to Met’s roster of wonderfully talented black artists as soloists, dancers and making up the large chorus. Gelb asked for the audience’s indulgence for Eric Owens (Porgy) who had been suffering from a bad cold but would still sing. Since he was not in the best of health – and anyway he was being heard through cinema loudspeakers – I will also give him the benefit of the doubt. For me this veteran singer did not appear as relaxed in this idiom as those around him who were living their roles. There was never any doubt Owens is first and foremost an opera singer. However, ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ and the duet ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ were the high spots of his performance. Angel Blue’s rather beautiful sung Bess had an imposing presence – especially in Gary Halvorson’s closeup camera work for the live transmission – and excelled with Owens in a subsequent duet ‘I Loves You, Porgy’. Whether her portrayal was the Gershwins’ Bess I cannot be certain, but Blue showed us someone who was simply captive to her own beauty, her attraction to the wrong kind of man and a drug habit she couldn’t really overcome.

Seen and heard throughout this Porgy and Bess there were wonderful voices with no weak link even in tiniest of roles, and sadly I cannot name everyone. Latonia Moore – a future Met Aida – convinced with Serena’s deep religious fervour and mourning for her murdered husband. Distinguished mezzo Denyce Graves was ideally cast as Maria the person the women of Catfish Row seemed to depend on for leadership. Donovan Singletary was an engaging, muscular Jake, a totally believable family man, devoted to his wife Clara and their new baby. Clara was resplendent sung by Golda Schultz and her memorable opening ‘Summertime’ set the tone for the very high standard of singing we would continue to hear. As the violent Crown, Alfred Walker was as an imposing – and genuinely scary – presence as the mightily impressive Frederick Ballentine was insidiously charismatic as Sportin’ Life. Although this was Ballentine’s Met debut his is clearly a tenor voice to look out for in the future.

Conductor David Robertson led his exemplary Met Orchestra from a languid opening through the tensions of the various conflicts to the visceral drama of the hurricane and allowed this Porgy and Bess to be undoubtedly disturbing yet ultimately triumphant.

Jim Pritchard

An audio recording of this Porgy and Bess cast is available from the Met and for further information click here.

Comments

Comments

  1. Ron Martin says:

    Well, yes. But please know that the Met took liberties with Gershwin’s masterpiece. You did not hear the entire opera in all its glory. Most egregiously, “Buzzard Song” was cut (this aria marks the dramatic turning point of the opera) & most of Porgy’s delightful music of the final scene was cut. If you want to hear the complete opera as Gershwin wished it to be performed, get Simon Rattle’s Glyndebourne performance on EMI (still available). Then you’ll understand why Porgy is not only The Great American Opera but a great world opera, worthy to stand with Verdi & Mozart.

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      Firstly thank you for your interest in S&H and for taking the time to write in.

      So you want ‘Porgy and Bess’ to be even longer? (only joking, I think) I did admit this was the first time I had seen it. I did know ‘Buzzard Song’ was cut and research shows that Gershwin himself cut that prior to Broadway. I understand that at one time ‘P&B’ was running to about four hours and still now at about three hours it is at least 30 minutes too long IMHO. Gershwin also – I believe – seems to have considered ‘P&B’ more a musical than an opera and that is why it went to Broadway. I don’t know anything about the performing edition the Met used and whether they made further cuts but if Gershwin left ‘Buzzard Song’ out he must have had his reasons. In all sorts of music there is often too much second guessing the composer’s original intentions. Undoubtedly ‘P&B’ is a very important work with a rich legacy and the questions it raises can only be answered by seeing it performed more often.

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