Back when I was a sweet young thing of 15, I had already started studying voice and my teacher had me sing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” with a soprano who was as white as I am. I had no idea at that time that there is a long history of white singers performing in this opera. Right after the Broadway debut, Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson recorded excerpts. And there was a long period during which all-white or mostly-white casts sang it in some of the opera houses of Europe. It wasn’t until 1976 that Porgy and Bess was produced by an American opera company when the Houston Grand Opera cast Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale, a production that eventually ran on Broadway—and won a Tony Award).
A new DVD of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess features an enjoyable live performance from the San Francisco Opera from June of 2009. As the title characters, we have Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell, both singers who can act. Ms. Mitchell, in particular, is a stage animal. She’s mesmerizing to watch and to listen to and she is stunning to look at. Both of them also sing their parts beautifully and are greeted with rapturous applause at the end. I have one quibble with Mr. Owens, and it may not be something he can change, but he squints a lot and when he does, his eyes get lost. It can be distracting in closeups.
In fact, the whole cast is terrific. Crown is sung by Lester Lynch and he really makes you hate the character. Karen Slack, Alteouise deVaughn, and Angel Blue sing Serena, Maria, and Clara respectively and I would gladly pay to hear any of them again. Miss Blue sings “Summertime” with lovely, melting tone and I’d love to hear more from her. And I must mention the wonderful contribution from the chorus. Gershwin wrote beautiful choral music and the SFO chorus rises to the occasion. My only complaint is with Sportin’ Life and I think it’s less a reflection on Chauncey Packer than it on the role. I’ve always felt that he comes across more like Ben Vereen on acid then a real character.
The production is beautiful and takes place almost entirely on the Catfish Row set. The back wall is a multilevel set of homes and off on stage left is Porgy’s home. At various times parts of the set open to allow for mass exits and entrances of the cast. It’s very effective. While watching, I reflected on the set for Faust at the Met in their newest production. At the Met, anyone who sang near the multi-tiered back wall was swallowed by the orchestra; I had trouble even hearing Rene Pape. But in this SFO production, that doesn’t appear to be a problem. None of the singers had difficulty projecting over the orchestra. The costumes suggest the 1930s. The lighting is handled beautifully, especially effective during the storm scene.
On to the opera itself. It’s interesting to note that the opera originally ran to about 4 hours but was cut for the first Broadway run and then cut further for the second Broadway run. David Gockley talks about how the Houston Grand Opera production, which he also oversaw, restored most of what was cut and put back the sung recitatives that had been replaced by dialogue. I’m curious to know what is still missing though, as this performance only runs two and a half hours. If it’s been restored, wouldn’t it be longer than that?
In any case, the opera works. It has been called racist and for a time, Black singers refused to perform it. I leave the politics to others; I enjoyed it musically and dramatically. Numbers flow seamlessly from one to the next and the chorus plays an important role. Gershwin called Porgy a folk opera and while he has written all new spirituals for it, they sound authentic, at least in part because he and Mr. Heyword spent time in South Carolina soaking up the musical idioms.
It may seem strange that a Jewish composer wrote a “Negro” folk opera but the two cultures have much in common. Both spirituals and Jewish music are frequently in minor keys to express despair or longing and both cultures not only deal with oppression but with hope for a better future. Gershwin had already moved to classical music, having written the Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928) and in all of those pieces, he leaned toward jazz. Opera was the next logical step and again, it has elements of jazz. Had he lived, it would have been fascinating to see what he’d have done in future operas.