The Met’s new production of Gershwin’s opera which opened its current season was telecast around the world today. Before getting to the performance, a few words about the opera. Though 80 years old, it is still under copyright as the Gershwin family has proved to be master manipulators of the relevant US law governing intellectual property rights. They’ve been so successful that their hold on Porgy and Bess will probably survive the heat death of the universe.

As this opera about black people was written by white men it qualifies as a massive piece of cultural appropriation; yet it somehow gets an exemption from the usual torture meted out to cultural transgressors. Nevertheless, it can’t completely get away without censure. Consider the article by Philip Kennicott about the opera in last month’s issue of the Met’s house organ – Opera News. Mr Kennicott has some interesting things to say about Porgy, mostly negative. A few quotations from his article. “Porgy and Bess [is] an opera created by white men based on a novel by a white man, that reinforces stereotypes, deploys vernacular speech in a way that sounds almost like caricature and confirms deeply held white views of black community life, ethics and spirituality.” He goes on to say take out three hit numbers and some choral work and opera consists mainly of filler. And then there’s this: “Nor does the opera survive because it somehow is universally accessible drama. The weaknesses of Porgy and Bess are legion; they include stock characters with little apparent inner life and critical moments in the plot – especially Bess’s infidelity – that almost always feels arbitrary and unaccountable.” It’s really hard to get so much wrong in so few words. Perhaps Mr Kennicott feels that the opera is not guilty by reason of insanity. There’s more, but you can find it on your own. The Verdi rule applies here. The only critic that counts is the audience. They have given their verdict. Porgy is a keeper; so much so that the Met added three extra performances to its current run.

Getting back to reality, how was the performance? Great! The show started with Peter Gelb announcing that Eric Owens was suffering from a cold, but would soldier on with the audience’s indulgence. I’ve repeatedly said that such announcements are bad form. Either an artist can give the audience his best or he shouldn’t appear. Except for a couple of strained notes Owens sounded like he usually does, which is very good.

There are several reasons for this opera continued popularity and success. First, of course is Gershwin’s wonderful score. It has a lot more than a few hit tunes and a lot of filler. It has characters who have dimension and who the composer makes us relate to. The cast is very large yet even the smaller parts are fleshed out. Their trials, foibles, and concerns are those of humanity in general which is the reason that the opera holds pride of place among all American operas.

Owens’ Porgy is a good natured guy who has suffered from a lifelong disability. He’s finally found love, but alas with the wrong woman. Bess is basically a decent person save for one horrible fault – she’s a junkie. Angel Blue has an opulent voice that sailed through Bess’s music with ease. Hers is a talent to watch. She should be great in the standard Italian repertory. The only adverse feature was the extra poundage she carries. That was true of a lot of her colleagues.

South African soprano Golda Schultz got everything out of the show’s most famous number – Summertime. Latonia Moore, another singer with a major voice, got the biggest ovation of the afternoon for her moving rendition of My Man’s Gone. Veteran mezzo  Denyce Graves was convincing as Maria.

Alfred Walker was one of the opera’s two villains – Crown. He has a rich baritone which should land him the title male role in future productions of Porgy. The other villain, Sportin’ Life, was portrayed by Frederick Ballentine. He’s very buff and must spend a lot of time in the gym. His interpretation was a little too mannered for my taste, but the audience seemed to be taken with him. The other well muscled singer was Donovan Singletary who was Jake. He too sang very well.

In fact, all the cast was first rate and deserved kudos all around. The all black chorus assembled especially for this opera was completely up to the Met’s high standard for choral work. David Robertson got a fine reading from the Met’s great orchestra of Gershwin’s brilliant and nuanced score. My only qualm was with Camille A. Brown’s choreography which seemed more Saint Vitus than Catfish Row.

Director James Robinson had a good feel for the action and kept a crisp pace for the opera which is a just a bit longer than it need be. Michael Yeargan’s Catfish Row apartments and square was on a revolving stage which allowed the action to flow smoothly. His sets were functional and did not distract. Catherine Zuber’s costumes appeared period specific and authentic. Gary Halvorson was the video director. His camera was often way too close. He unpredictably gets close up fever during his Met outings, a lapse he should resist.

In summary, an outstanding performance of Gershwin’s opera which seems likely, after 30 year absence from the Met’s stage, to settle in as a standard opera in the company’s repertory. If you missed it, there will be two encore performances.

 

Porgy and Bess

Metropolitan Opera House
February 1, 2020

PORGY AND BESS
George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin.

Porgy……………….Eric Owens
Bess………………..Angel Blue
Sporting Life………..Frederick Ballentine
Crown……………….Alfred Walker
Clara……………….Golda Schultz
Jake………………..Donovan Singletary
Serena………………Latonia Moore
Robbins……………..Chauncey Packer
Mingo……………….Errin Duane Brooks
Jim…………………Norman Garrett
Peter……………….Jamez McCorkle
Lily………………..Tichina Vaughn
Maria……………….Denyce Graves
Undertaker…………..Damien Geter
Annie……………….Chanáe Curtis
Frazier……………..Arthur Woodley
Strawberry Woman……..Aundi Marie Moore
Crab Man…………….Chauncey Packer
Detective……………Grant Neale
Policeman……………Bobby Mittelstadt
Coroner……………..Michael Lewis
Scipio………………Neo Randall
Nelson………………Jonathan Tuzo

Conductor……………David Robertson

Production…………..James Robinson
Set Designer…………Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer……..Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer…….Donald Holder
Projection Designer…..Luke Halls
Choreographer………..Camille A. Brown
Fight Director……….David Leong
Video Director………Gary Halvorson