GERSHWIN Porgy and Bess
Times are tough for seasoned admirers of Porgy and Bess. The recent Broadway production sliced, diced and reorchestrated the score in ways that drained the languid lushness from Gershwin’s original. Nothing goes wrong with this production of the real thing. Yet nothing is all that right in Catfish Row, this enclave of South Carolina ‘Gullah’ culture where people fish, work, gamble, brawl and take care of each other. Perhaps because the opera is politically incorrect in some circles (the novelist Toni Morrison is particularly allergic to the grammar lapses in ‘Bess, you is my woman now’), the production doesn’t always trust its material.
Much of the cast (and all of the chorus) sing as loud as possible – the amplitude rendering the libretto’s patois strangely unnatural. Stage director Francesca Zambello moves its setting from the 1920s to the 1950s (Kittawah Island is an abandoned amusement park) to make it more immediate. Also, the stage is relentlessly animated in ways that feel forced. Characters don’t live their roles; they sell them.
The disabled beggar Porgy has traded his goat-drawn cart for a single crutch. Bess wears an unflattering 1950s-style red-head wig that’s a source of puzzlement until late in the opera when her sometime boyfriend Crown sings the show-stopper ‘A red-headed woman’, the one song that lacks solid dramatic motivation but now partly explains his attachment to Bess.
A key moment such as Bess’s rape by Crown is extremely lurid, with no element of seduction. Crown’s murder by Porgy isn’t a noble victory: he stabs Crown in the back. Though the production is realistic, expressionistic lighting changes make the often-cut ‘Buzzard Song’ look like a total eclipse of the sun.
The singers all have their strengths – aided by conductor John DeMain’s subtle rubato and sometimes indulgent tempi that also tax momentum. The accomplished Verdi mezzo Alteouise deVaughn is an important presence as Maria, the plain-spoken conscience of Catfish Row. But Chauncey Packer (Sportin’ Life) seems determined to show every single move he knows, distracting from his considerable vocal powers. Laquita Mitchell sings Bess as if auditioning for Brünnhilde.
Eric Owens is an established Wagnerite but doesn’t sing like one with his mid-weight, beautifully coloured vocalism. Theatrically, though, his Porgy only comes alive amid inner conflict, such as giving Bess permission to go back with Crown, and later when he whispers to himself ‘I’m on my way’ (to New York).
Here’s the really bad news: this is the best Porgy and Bess video out there. The Trevor Nunn production on EMI is not a live performance but a low-budget, badly lip-synched studio production using the excellent Simon Rattle recording as a soundtrack. I prefer the charismatically cast 1959 film despite its musical cuts and Otto Preminger’s static, stylised direction. But try finding a decent DVD transfer.