As America was establishing itself as a cultural power, and setting up its institutions to garrison that culture, it conspicuously and contemptibly omitted much of black American culture and history from that sanctum. America’s hallowed depictions of itself in claimants to the Great American Novel and the Hollywood studio classics were not given to portray any African-American perspective, nor to consider the influences drawn from African-American culture or the significance of black history. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is an enduringly great opera for a number of reasons, and one reason brazenly realised in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production is that it takes black history as American history itself, and it depicts the expressive and exuberant aspects of African-American life as the essence of America’s brash, new, singularly energetic place in world culture.
The most obvious feature of Gershwin’s musical style is the common attribute of American culture in general: It blends a variety of contrasting styles and origins, from diverse cultural origins, and arrives at something boldly new and flavoursome. Gershwin’s particular brand of the new musical styles was one that overtly paid respect to and acknowledged its roots in African-American culture. Taking a leaf from Dvořák’s bountiful and neatly compiled book, Gershwin saw that the way forward for music in America would come out of black people’s music, and he developed his personal artistic voice founded on that idea.
Gershwin studied and developed his musical voice during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, and his music is amply informed by the European classical tradition that America inherited, the newly developing French, German, and Russian modernism, Jewish religious music, Russian traditional music (Gershwin’s parents were Jewish refugees from Russia), vaudeville, and the popular tunes of Tin Pan Alley. Together with his lyricist brother Ira, he wrote a multitude of showtunes and standalone songs, which grew into more sophisticated and ambitious compositions like his Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto, and symphonic work An American in Paris. He developed his skills in orchestration, which show the influence of the French impressionist composer Ravel, and produced a number of popular stage works for Broadway. Porgy and Bess was one of his last major compositions (alas, since Gershwin died from a brain tumour, at age 38), and it’s the one that shows the widest basis of musical influence and diversity of forms. Gershwin modeled his musical numbers on black spirituals, street songs, work songs, folk tunes, and blues, and combined them with the operatic forms of arias, ensembles, choruses, and recitatives, to create what he called a “folk opera” — a work of operatic dimensions with original composed folk music.
Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935, in musical theatre productions in Boston and on Broadway. Gershwin thought of it as an opera and perhaps would have liked it to play as an one, but companies like the Metropolitan Opera weren’t willing to stage productions that kept to his strict casting requirement — namely, that every cast member be a black singer, and not a white singer in blackface. Theatre producers picked up what the Met had cast down, and the show had a number of successful revivals on Broadway over the decades. However, it was not popular with many black performers who wanted to be taken seriously, especially in the opera world. They feared (rightly) that they would be typecast by a popular show in which they play impoverished, drug addicted, and apparently unsophisticated black characters. But over time, as more and more black singers built successful careers in the mainstream opera world, a larger appetite for Gershwin’s masterpiece developed. Stars like Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Willard White, and William Warfield were already famous for their Verdi and Puccini, and could take on Porgy and Bess without worrying unduly about stereotypes. In 1976, the opera had its first staging by a professional opera company (the Houston Grand Opera), and since then has taken off as a major work in the worldwide operatic repertory. It finally received its Met premiere for its 50th anniversary, in 1985. (The tragedy is that other prominent operas depicting African-American characters haven’t emerged in the time since then. The New York Times gives an enlightening summary of a number of less well-known works on its website.)
The new production at the Met is one that was first staged at the English National Opera in 2018. It’s directed by James Robinson and presents a respectably traditional period setting that Met audiences can appreciate. There is one main set on a revolving stage (designed by Michael Yeargan), which gives the mere outlines of the buildings on Catfish Row, rather like the wooden scaffolding used in the Joburg Theatre’s production of The Color Purple. It’s on a revolving stage, and scene changes are indicated by a drop curtain onto which digital effects (like the hurricane) are projected. When the Met took the production over, it hired Camille A. Brown to choreograph the Met Opera’s ballet dancers. Her work is a special stylisation of movement fit for Gershwin’s music and a 2020 audience, fresh for a new appreciation. Her choreography extended to the chorus as well, and many of their simple movements are highly effective; the entire direction of the cast achieves dramatic expression through simple means. There’s a lot to be said for clarity in opera stagings, and Robinson’s staging renders the action of every scene and every relationship abundantly clearly. It also gives plenty of room for individual performers to play with and develop their interpretation of the characters and the music — room that yields thrilling results from those performers.
The bass-baritone Eric Owens plays Porgy. Owens is a favourite with Met audiences since his unforgettable appearance as Alberich the Nibelung in Wagner’s momentous Ring cycle, and was greeted by warm applause before he had sung a note. The Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, came on stage before the performance to announce that Owens was fighting a cold on the day of the broadcast, but it didn’t sound that way to me. His immediately recognisable rounded and warm sound makes it sound like he has a resonant oak barrel for an abdomen. He played the disabled Porgy in a tenderly uncomplicated way, singing earnestly with many nuances between pathos and joy. When he started an aria, even one of the omnipresent standards like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” I felt as though I didn’t know where it would go or how it was going to end. The up-and-coming soprano Angel Blue plays Bess with immense empathy, as someone who doesn’t understand why she does what she does, nor how she came to deserve the bliss she finds with Porgy. Her voice is radiant and rich, especially in the upper registers, and she spun many felicitous moments in Bess’s gorgeous music. In other moments, she spat venom at Bess’s cocaine dealer, Sportin’ Life, played by the young tenor Frederick Ballentine in the slickest performance ever to oil its way across the stage of the Met. Ballentine has played Sportin’ Life in Robinson’s production for close to two years, and takes gleeful liberties to outrageously realise its full serpentine quality. He has a distinctively dark tenor sound, even at the top of his range, and I’m very interested to hear more of his singing in other parts.
Perhaps the highlights for every audience member were from two supporting cast members, one an established artist of beauty and talent, and one a grand veteran of the operatic stage. The soprano Latonia Moore plays the religious Serena, who starts off as a finger-wagging spitfire, but later shows her tender side as she prays over a bedridden Bess. Moore was a jazz singer before she trained in opera, and in the part of Serena she fuses the two styles in a show-stopping song of woe, “Man Man’s Gone Now,” sung when Serena’s husband is murdered outside Catfish Row. Moore moves from high notes sung without almost any vibrato to darkly textured low notes, settling on just the right mode of expression on each note in between. It all culminates in a very moving performance, a wonderful surprise even from someone who has given excellent performances in such roles as Aïda and Tosca. (Moore has given her own fantastic performance as Bess as well; click watch trailer to see some highlights.) The part of Catfish Row’s no-nonsense matriarch, Maria, is played by the mezzo Denyce Graves, who made her Met debut 25 years ago as Carmen. She infused her part with verve and colour, and sometimes with hilarious Sprechstimme. Her presence helped evoke the sense of a close-knit and lively community on Catfish Row, one of the greatest merits of this production. The portrayal felt realistic, even in the form of an opera performance, and every moment of communal expression, whether by a nameless solo or a rousing chorus, added to the vitality and ecstasy of the experience. (One solo of particular interest to me was in the small role of Clara, sung by Golda Schulz, a South African soprano, who sings the opening number Summertime.)
The production was conducted by David Robertson, an experienced and skilled hand. His direction of the orchestra also had the virtue of clarity, as well as consummate romance and rhythmic buoyancy. He has at his disposal one of the most versatile orchestras in the world, and at all the right moments they whipped up splendid verismo ardour, thrashed out a brassy jazz swing, and warmly caressed and lifted the singers in their parts. I especially enjoyed how Robertson brought out Gershwin’s leitmotivic themes — the melodies that he associated with specific characters or ideas — in places I hadn’t heard them before, and the moments when the superb orchestra soloists took their chance to playfully show off a few of their skills that they don’t get to use in Verdi or Wagner. Every production is only one possible answer to the virtual questions and puzzles posed by composers and librettists, and many productions seem locked into the specific period in which they were devised. This new Porgy and Bess has the potential to open the work up to new generations, and it’s been showing its value by selling out shows in New York; for now, it’s a valuable asset to the Met, to history, and to opera lovers everywhere.
If you rush, you can still catch the first of the remaining shows at Cinema Nouveau, today at 14:30. Other shows are on Tuesday, 25 February, at 11:30, Tuesday, 3 March, at 18:00, and Wednesday, 4 March, at 11:30. See the Ster Kinekor website for details.