Composer: George Gershwin
Librettists: DuBose and Ira Gershwin
Conductor: David Robertson
Producer/Director: James Robinson
Eric Owens: Porgy
Angel Blue: Bess
Denyce Graves: Maria
Latonia Moore: Serena
Janai Brugger: Clara
Alfred Walker: Crown
Frederick Ballentine: Sportin’ Life
Donovan Singletary: Jake
Less than a week after attending a blazing performance of Wozzeck at the Met, I was back there on Friday evening for a completely different but no less exciting opera in the Gershwins’ 1935 Porgy and Bess. A timeless classic of the American repertoire, the poignant love story between the disabled beggar Porgy and the unstable junkie Bess in the Catfish Row neighborhood of Charleston in the early 20th century is unfortunately more relevant than ever in our era of racial prejudice, economic inequality, sex crimes and the opioid epidemic. Add to that the controversies the work has generated since its opening, including stereotypes, condescension and the appropriateness of having the black experience in the South depicted by a bunch of white New York intellectuals. And then, come to think of it, is it an opera or a musical anyway?
So when I realized that it would be part of the current Met season, I figured it was high time to move past all the hand-wringing and go check it out myself, especially since it is not produced in New York City as often as you’d think for such a musical milestone. To wit, it had not been presented at the Met in nearly 30 years.
Since it opened the current Met season back last September, the media and word-of mouth have kept on churning out deliriously ecstatic reviews, and before you knew it, the fall shows were sold-out. However, right before all hope was lost, I managed to grab tickets for last Friday's performance for my visiting friend Vittorio and me. And because all great minds think alike, we found ourselves right behind my friends Steve and Carter and two friends of theirs in the packed opera house.
Not a musical and not quite an opera, Porgy and Bess was described by Gershwin himself as a “folk opera”, which, all things considered, sounds about right, and not just because he is the author and therefore knows better. As it is, the ambitious masterwork features plenty of colorful characters, eminently hummable tunes, and a seemingly bottomless supply of both universal and specific issues. Granted, small-scale productions regularly pop up here and there, and some of the catchiest songs have taken a life of their own. But then again, there’s nothing like experiencing the real thing in the appropriate environment, so there we were.
One of the biggest stars on the opera stage today, bass-baritone Eric Owens brought his big presence, big heart and big voice to the simple-hearted and painfully kind Porgy, a much put-upon disabled man who finally seemed to have found happiness, as the light-hearted hymn to contentment that is “I Got Plenty o' Nuttin’” playfully attested. But he proved to be a ferocious adversary when his beloved Bess was threatened, never hesitating to make use of his unusual physical and vocal force despite his disability, and also knew how to express his deep love for her with aching tenderness, as he did in their impossibly gorgeous duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”.
Soprano Angel Blue was an all-around wonderful Bess, the emotionally scarred woman who repeatedly found solace in liquor, drugs and an abusive boyfriend, even when an unexpected opportunity for a better life comes her way in the form of unassuming Porgy. A naturally radiant singer, Blue is blessed with a sumptuous voice that is able to convey an incredibly nuanced range of emotions, for infectious exuberance to bone-chilling fear. Despite all her flaws, her Bess came out as a truly likable human being who deserved better.
The other ladies fared just as well, with veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as the commanding Maria, a fierce matriarch you would not want to cross (Did you see her gut that huge fish while putting Crown back in his place?!), soprano Latonia Moore as broken-hearted Serena whose “My Man’s Gone Now” was one of the most heart-breaking songs of the evening, and soprano Janai Brugger as new mom Clara, whose luminous “Summertime” opened the performance with the promise of a bright future, and a fantastic night at the opera.
Not to be outdone, the men displayed some remarkable skills on their own, with bass-baritone Alfred Walker as a boorish and violent Crown who was bursting at the seams with angry entitlement, tenor Frederick Ballentine as the up-to-nothing-good Sportin’ Life whose recurring appearances never failed to mean trouble, and bass-baritone Donovan Singletary as the well-meaning and ill-fated fisherman Jake, one of the most level-headed and reliable members of the entire community.
I’ve always thought that the magnificent Met chorus could not be beat, and I still do. But there was fierce competition onstage on Friday night from a superb chorus made of the crème de la crème of today’s African-American singing talent. Whether delightfully rambunctious or subtly haunting, they handled the various substantial choral parts with sweeping intensity and impressive unison.
As if all the dazzling singing were not enough, the stage was sporadically graced by an equally fantastic group of dancers that thrilled the audience in engaging routines choreographed by Camille A. Brown. This perfectly integrated, visually attractive addition contributed to no small part to the non-stop action, bringing even more vibrancy to life in the busy waterfront neighborhood.
Essentially consisting of the wooden framing of a former fancy mansion turned into a multi-family dwelling, except for the trip to the island that was conveyed by a long jetty, the rotating set by Met first-timer James Robinson and the clever lighting by Donald Holder were not the most original or the most innovative, but they effortlessly provided the proper context and atmosphere. They also worked really well when making the transitions between scenes pretty much seamless, which is really what you want for a three-and-a-half-hour opera.
George Gershwin’s score, which combines the appealing sounds of jazz, blues and gospel, is one of its kind in the repertoire, and couldn’t have served the story any better. Gershwin may not have been a first-hand expert in the field of black music, but his well-meaning dedication to the task can hardly be questioned. Featuring irresistible tunes like “Summertime” and “It ain’t necessarily so”, whose infectious melodies are now solidly rooted in pop culture, the engrossing composition got the royal treatment from the Met orchestra, who probably welcome this new challenge, and maestro David Robertson, who kept everything under control, for an effortlessly splendid, truly memorable performance.
In a rare but no doubt winning move, the Met will have three additional performances of this crowd-pleasing Porgy and Bess in February to fill in some unexpected holes in its schedule as well as meet the insatiable popular demand. And just like that, a not-quite opera has proved to be the biggest hit at the prestigious Met in a long time.