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‘It Takes a Long Pull to Get There’: ‘Porgy and Bess’ and the Winding Road to the Met

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

After almost 30 years in limbo (or mothballs, if you prefer), the Metropolitan Opera brought The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess back to its stage with a vibrant, new production. Led by conductor and Juilliard School of Music professor David Robertson, this latest version, directed by James Robinson, featured set designs by Michael Yeargan, costume designs by Catherine Zuber, lighting and projection designs by Donald Holder and Luke Halls, respectively, and choreography by Camille A. Brown.

A much-maligned work, Porgy and Bess was a pathbreaker not normally found inside your standard-issue opera house. It was the one and only attempt at a serious stage vehicle by one of Tin Pan Alley's foremost writer of popular songs, the highly esteemed George Gershwin (1898-1937), and older brother Ira. The duo had previously collaborated on several hit shows, among them Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy (also 1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), with Porgy and Bess debuting in 1935.

Branded as "pretentious," "surefire rubbish," and "too long," as well as "commonplace" and lacking the "glow of personal feeling," Broadway theater and music critics, in equal measure, were sharply divided as to Porgy and Bess's merits. (For an in-depth background of same, see my post concerning the 2011-2012 Broadway revival with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis:

Unable to properly quantify the work, many dismissed Porgy as an aberration, a one-off not to be replicated in their lifetime. Others saw it as something bold and new, and unmistakably "American," albeit with exceptions. Still others marveled at director Rouben Mamoulian's staging, while "less satisfied with Gershwin's score" as a whole.

Here's a typical review by Paul Rosenfeld, presented in Discoveries of a Music Critic from 1936: "The score is a loose aggregation ... [that] sustains no mood. There is neither a progressive nor an enduring tension in it ... the expression lies in conventional patterns, as if the feeling of the composer had been too timid to mold musical forms ... Long before the conclusion one feels the music has got one nowhere new and true" (as quoted in On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and 'Porgy and Bess,' " by Joseph Horowitz, p. 163).

Conventional patterns? Too timid? No enduring tension? It makes you wonder whether Rosenfeld was writing about something else entirely. Indeed, what hath Gershwin wrought? Was Porgy and Bess a folk opera (as he himself described it), a fiery melodrama, a musical revue, a musical comedy or plain old-fashioned operetta along the lines of Jerome Kern's Show Boat? Did the work go out of its way to honor and elevate its poor black protagonists, or simply pigeonhole them in disparaging ways?

Many writers have attempted to examine and dissect Porgy in their struggles to place the work in its proper "social context," mostly along racial lines. Some balked at its alleged inauthenticity and the impenetrable Gullah dialect. Others took the drama to task as unrepresentative of African American culture. It's true that DuBose and Dorothy Hayward, the creators of the novel and play on which Porgy and Bess was based, were Southern whites; and equally true the Gershwins were of Russian-Jewish ancestry. But does that, in itself, disqualify them from creating a work of art?

In terms of the music, was there anything one could describe as legitimately African American? The influence of Wagner is evident throughout in the recurrent leitmotifs, along with the chromaticism of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy; factor in a bit of "modern music" by Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Arnold Schoenberg (whom Gershwin knew personally). Certainly, the jazz and pop idioms were major components in its construction, as were Negro spirituals. But does any of the above stand out sufficiently to make the opera uniquely its own?

In the work's defense, it constantly amazes me that Porgy and Bess was Gershwin's first and ONLY serious operatic endeavor. Neither Mozart nor Wagner, nor Verdi and Puccini had reached complete mastery of the form in the way that Gershwin attained in this initial outing. What might Gershwin have accomplished had he lived as full a life as Verdi? It's beyond imagining.

From his pioneering Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928), Gershwin started the process of blurring the lines between popular and classical forms. For myself, I find the opera's infectious numbers impossible to resist. Coming one after another, in quick succession, one can easily lose count as to the sheer volume of "hit tunes," not just in Act I but throughout the body of this work. How many operas do you know where the public comes away humming the melodies as they exit the theater? In Rossini's The Barber of Seville? Yes. In Verdi's Rigoletto, Trovatore or Traviata? Indeed. In Puccini's La Bohème or Madama Butterfly? Most indubitably. All right, but what else? Well, there's Bizet's Carmen.

In point of fact, there are as many similarities between Bizet's opéra-comique as there are variances in Gershwin's three-act Porgy and Bess (incidentally, according to Horowitz it was Mamoulian who reduced the work from four to three acts in the version we know today). Gershwin expressed admiration for Carmen, considering it a "model for working 'song hits' into Porgy and Bess ... The two stories are cognates: Porgy the vulnerable [Don] José, Carmen the temptress Bess, Crown the [bullfighter] Escamillo who lures the girl away. Gershwin's outcast Gullahs are Bizet's Gypsies, the spirituals girding their songs are in Carmen flamenco song and dance ... What Gershwin appreciated, citing those 'song hits,' was that Carmen blended art and entertainment" (Horowitz, Ibid., pp. 209-210).

Shortly after the premiere, Gershwin trimmed his score of an hour's worth of music and recitative. Later revivals in the forties and fifties dispensed with the recitatives altogether, instead substituting spoken dialogue between the musical numbers (thus giving weight to the Carmen analogy).

In practical terms, the comparison can be taken a step further when lyricist and songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), whose grandfather happened to be the impresario and Manhattan Opera House founder Oscar Hammerstein I, adapted Bizet's masterpiece for modern-day audiences. Hammerstein transferred the opera's locale to the American South while setting the action near a parachute factory during wartime. The characters were all African Americans, for which Hammerstein rechristened the revamped musical Carmen Jones (1943). Their speech patterns, humor, camaraderie, and shared experiences seemed almost to replicate what had been documented earlier in Porgy. In this context, imitation became the sincerest form of flattery.

Nevertheless, the opera Porgy and Bess and the resultant musical theater variety (to include the undistinguished 1959 Samuel Goldwyn-produced motion picture starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge) began the long, painful climb to acceptance not only by highbrow audiences but by artists, singers and choirs who nourish its truthfulness and humanity.

Almost 50 years after its Boston and Broadway premieres, the work finally reached New York's Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on February 6, 1985, with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the leads and James Levine conducting.

'Here Come the Honey Man'

And nearly 35 years to the day, the Met broadcast Porgy and Bess live on February 1, 2020 (it had opened the season back in September 2019). Regrettably, as I had experienced with the 2011-2012 Broadway revival, the opening Jasbo Brown jazz piano solo and accompanying chorus were cut. The overture that began the show, then, led directly into the number "Summertime," the first of many standards.

The plot synopsis, in brief, concerns a cripple named Porgy who lives in the fictional community of Catfish Row, near the South Carolina coastline. It's summer, and, as Clara, the young wife of fisherman Jake, croons to her little baby: "The livin' is easy." Jake and the men gather around a clearing to play craps. Joining them is the burly stevedore Crown, a known troublemaker high on drugs and alcohol. His supplier, Sporting Life (sometimes given as Sportin' Life), joins the group, followed by Crown's girl, Bess.

Soon, Crown, a chronic sore loser, picks a fight with Robbins, whom he kills. Serena, Robbins' wife, screams in anguish as she flings herself onto his lifeless body. Everyone scatters. Bess tells Crown to run and hide, but not before Crown vows to come back for her. Bess insists that "Some man always willin' to take care of Bess." A police whistle is heard. Left alone, all doors are closed to the despairing Bess - all doors, that is, except Porgy's.

At Robbins' funeral, the mourners pay their respects ("But he's gone, gone, gone, gone, gone"). After taking up a collection for the deceased, the mourners are interrupted by a police detective, who rudely questions them about the perpetrator who murdered Robbins. Dragging Peter, the Honey Man, away as a material witness, the detective leaves the grieving widow Serena to break out in song: "My man's gone now, ain't no use a listenin'."

An undertaker bargains with the widow for burial money, while Bess leads the gathering in a prayer for the deceased ("Oh, the train is at the station").

In scene iii of Act I, the action shifts to Jake and the men repairing their fishing nets ("It takes a long pull to get there - huh!"). Clara warns him about the coming storm off the banks, but Jake laughs away her concerns. Porgy appears. Bursting into song ("Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin', and nuttin's plenty fo' me"), Porgy's in a jovial mood after having spent time with Bess. Meanwhile, Maria, Catfish Row's resident Earth Mother, berates Sporting Life for his hedonistic lifestyle ("I hates yo' struttin' style. Yes, sir, and yo' goddam silly smile").

The lawyer Frazier enters and, in a comical bit, tries to convince Porgy to pay for Bess's divorce from Crown (even though she never legally married him). There's a scene or two that was cut from the Met's production (that of Mister Archdale, a speaking part; and Porgy's "Buzzard Song").

Sporting Life tempts Bess with some "happy dust," but Porgy drives him off. The couple swears allegiance to one another ("Bess, you is my woman now, you is" / "Porgy, I's yo' woman now, I is"), while the residents prepare to picnic off Kittiwah Island. Both Porgy and Maria insist that Bess go and enjoy herself with the picnickers.

The next scene takes place on Kittiwah Island. While the residents are having a grand old time, Sporting Life entertains the throng with a sarcastic diatribe, "It ain't necessarily so / the things that yo' liable to read in the Bible." Serena reproaches the crowd for listening to this hogwash, just as the boat for the mainland sounds its whistle.

As Bess prepares to leave, Crown calls to her. Unable to resist his pull, Bess insists she's attached to Porgy ("Oh, what you want wid Bess?"). But Crown will have none of it. The two engage in a tug-of-war. Finally, Crown overcomes Bess's resistance and draws her into the thicket.

In Act II, we're back at Catfish Row. It's the time before dawn. Fishermen are preparing to go out to sea, despite gale warnings of trouble ahead. Jake kisses Clara goodbye. In the meantime, a delirious Bess is recovering from her unfortunate mishap with Crown. Porgy is beside her, nursing his woman back to health. Serena leads the assembly in prayer for Bess's recovery ("Oh, Doctor Jesus, who done trouble water in de Sea of Galilee"). Various character vignettes occur (with marvelous scene-painting in the orchestra reminiscent of Puccini's Tosca) as the village comes to life.

Bess confides her problems with Crown to Porgy, who claims he won't stop her from going to him. She professes her unworthiness to Porgy but, in the next instant, begs him not to let Crown abuse her. Bess declares her devotion to him ("I loves you, Porgy / Don' let him take me, don' let him handle me / With his hot han' "). No sooner have they concluded, when Clara makes note of the darkening seas. Maria cries out that the hurricane bell has sounded and calls for Clara to go to her baby.

The scene changes to Serena's room where everyone huddles in fear of the coming storm. Again, the populace calls on Doctor Jesus to save them from misfortune ("Oh, de Lawd shake de Heavens an' de Lawd rock de groun' "). Suddenly, there's a pounding on the door. It grows louder and louder until Crown comes bursting in. Looking around for Bess, the bedraggled stevedore tussles violently with Porgy. His laughter is that of a fiend as he mocks Bess with a song ("A red-headed woman make a choo-choo jump its track"). From the window, Clara lets out a scream. Shouting "Jake! Jake!", Clara hands her baby to Bess and runs to the shore in search of her husband. Crown brags that he's the only man there who can rescue Clara. He flings himself through the doorway as the storm reaches its climax.

After the storm has subsided, the populace gathers once more to grieve at the loss of life: for Jake, for Clara, and (it is presumed) for the detestable Crown. Sporting Life trades barbs with Maria, who calls him a "low-life skunk." Singing to Clara's baby at her window, Bess repeats the lines of "Summertime," but in a subdued manner. Crawling outside in the courtyard, Crown stealthily approaches Porgy's door. In the traditional staging, Porgy opens his window, plunges a knife into Crown's back and strangles him with his bare hands as Crown stands up to face his foe. Victorious at last, Porgy shouts to one and all, "Bess, you got a man now, you got Porgy!"

In the next scene, a detective and coroner question Serena, who claims to be sick in bed. They then approach Porgy and inform him that Crown is dead. They insist he come along with them to identify the body. In protest, Porgy fears looking at Crown's dead features. He refuses to go with them. In that case, he'll be held in contempt until he complies. The detective and coroner drag poor Porgy off to jail. Bess is despondent, but Sporting Life takes advantage of the situation by offering her some "assistance."

"But cheer up, sistuh! Ole Sportin' Life givin' you de stuff for to scare away dem lonesome blues." Now follows a recreation of the serpent's temptation of Eve: the good-for-nothing Sporting Life confides to Bess that "There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York." An idyllic place, a Garden of Sinful Delights (if not of Eden), is at their call if she'll only come along with him. He'll dress her, feed her, give her all that she wants. In most productions, Bess makes a pretense of resisting his wiles. But no matter what she says, Bess can't resist that "happy dust."

After they exit, the community comes alive with the sound of daily activities. Having served his sentence, Porgy returns from jail. He goes from one resident to another, inquiring after Bess's whereabouts. He runs into Maria, who tries to dissuade him from his pursuit. Finally, Maria tells Porgy the truth: "Dat dirty dog Sportin' Life make believe you lock up forever." Serena seconds her statements, declaring that Bess has gone back to her old ways ("She done throw Jesus out of her heart"). But all their entreaties are to no avail. Porgy calls for his goat. In fact, he's going to New York to find Bess, to rescue her from Sodom.

The last scene is the most poignant of all. Porgy swears he'll be with Bess, come what may. He calls on God's aid in the moving, "Oh Lawd, I'm on my way to a Heav'nly Lan' / I'll ride dat long, long road / Oh Lawd, it's a long, long way / but You'll be there to take my han'." Slowly and awkwardly, Porgy grabs his crutch (or goat cart, depending on the staging) and makes for the bright lights of the big city - alone. With only the good Lord by his side.

It befits me to praise this pivotal work. Some folks find the story crude and forced. So, let me pose this basic question: What, in the above description, sounds forced or crude? Aren't good people oftentimes tempted to do bad things? Do the situations in the opera's plot not mirror real life? Don't people get "high," either from booze, drugs, and sex, or gambling on the ponies? If you've never known a person to debase him- or herself with the above vices (carried to extremes, of course), then you haven't lived in the real world.

That the individuals in Porgy and Bess happen to be poorly educated African Americans, living and struggling to make ends meet in a tightknit South Carolina community of the 1920s, is incidental. We're all capable of taking a wrong turn now and then. This is one of many reasons why Porgy is so beloved by so many. It exposes real-world concerns in ways that anyone can relate to and learn from.

Sing Out Loud, Sing It Strong

The cast of this new production did their best to straddle both the operatic and musical-theater sides of the Porgy and Bess equation. For us listeners, that meant good, solid vocalizing. And much of that was surely to be heard in this nearly four-hour performance. Audiences expressed their total involvement in the drama, and were thoroughly transfixed by the action and actors. At the final curtain, many of them cheered or booed lustily at the singers/performers of their choice. The whole article felt more like an America's Got Talent audition than a staid Metropolitan Opera production.

For the most part, the title characters were expertly handled, with minor concessions. Despite a frumpy stage deportment, bass-baritone Eric Owens, a powerful Alberich and Hagen in Wagner's Ring cycle, had the role under his belt for most of the way. I'm not particularly enamored of his grin-and-bare-it-singing technique or his stand-and-deliver acting style, but the basic sound is solidly compact. On this occasion, General Manager Peter Gelb made a pre-curtain announcement that Owens was suffering from a bad cold. Not wanting to disappoint the fans, he soldiered on despite the ailment.

With that said, there were moments of strain and wobbly, off-center pitch problems. Under these circumstances, some wayward top notes were to be expected. Otherwise, Owens acquitted himself remarkably well in view of his health issues. The main takeaway was that he convinced listeners that Porgy was a flesh-and-blood figure who deserved a much happier ending than he ultimately received.

As his beloved Bess, soprano Angle Blue was a revelation, the heart and soul of this production. Tall, elegant, and strikingly good looking, Ms. Blue encompassed the slatternly yet good-hearted Bess's persona with facility in a powerful vocal performance. It's not her fault this production did not revolve specifically around her character, or resolve Bess's dual nature. This was distinct from the version I witnessed with Audra McDonald, who brought her usual firepower (vocal and histrionic) to the part. Still, if there were any inherent flaws, blame the composer and/or the original dramatists, DuBose Hayward and his wife Dorothy, for any shortcomings.

In a large and varied cast, the standouts and stalwarts were too numerous to count. Still, let me give it a try. As Clara, South African soprano Golda Schultz (a superb Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier) sang cleanly and serenely. In my listening experience, Ms. Schultz earned kudos for sticking to the printed score for once.

As Serena, soprano Latonia Moore equaled her in appealing tone and personal involvement. Bass-baritone Donovan Singletary's hearty sound lent a masculine presence to the fisherman Jake.

In the role of the criminal Crown, Alfred Walker's smoothly tailored bass-baritone was almost too good for this part. His laugh was oddly restrained, quite the opposite of the best Crowns, particularly the diabolical Gregg Baker (with appropriately muscular build) and the whirlwind Phillip Boykin. I'm told his physical presence was most convincing (maybe he needed to sing the title part instead of Owens?).

On the other hand, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves did not have her best moments as Maria. Sounding dry and lacking resonance, Ms. Graves has delivered far better performances as the sultry Carmen or the sensuous Delilah. Here, she seemed out of sorts in a role that calls for a mighty contralto, the kind that breathes fire and brimstone, or brings down the fear of God onto the likes of Sporting Life.

And speak of the devil, tenor Frederick Ballentine reveled in his character's bumping and grinding. Now, here was as slimy a portrait of this no-good, snake-in-the-grass drug peddler as one could get. His snide, snaky side come through loud and clear. As Peter the Honey Man, tenor Jamez McCorkle's tones were a balm to the ear. Rounding out the cast were Aundi Marie Moore as the Strawberry Woman, Chauncey Packer as Robbins, Errin Duane Brooks as Mingo, Norman Garrett as Jim, Tichina Vaughn as Lily, Damien Geter as the Undertaker, Chanáe Curtis as Annie, Arthur Woodley as the lawyer Frazier, and Jonathan Tuzo as Nelson.

Among speaking roles, we had actors Grant Neale as the Detective, Bobby Mittelstadt as the Policeman, Michael Lewis as the Coroner, and Ned Randall as Scipio. David Robertson presided over the orchestra, maintaining firm control over the enormous forces called for, in particular during the imposing hurricane episode. And no production of Porgy would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of the mighty Porgy and Bess Chorus, specially prepared for this production by David Moody, along with the Met Opera Children's Chorus. And let's not forget the dancers who mingled with the crowd.

It took a long pull, and a tremendous amount of love and dedication, to bring Porgy and Bess to the Met stage. Let's hope it never outstays its welcome.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

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