BWW Review: PORGY AND BESS at The Metropolitan Opera
Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera!
The very words tingle with palpable electricity and anticipation. Whether you attend in person, or go to the Times Square simulcast, or whether you listen on the radio or on the Met website, you are participating in one of the most thrilling events of the New York City musical year.
The new season opened on September 23, 2019 with a dazzling new production of "Porgy and Bess" by George Gershwin (1898-1937), book by DuBose (1885-1940) and Dorothy (1890-1961)Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin(1896-1983). A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, Dutch National Opera, and the English National Opera, it is a spectacular achievement.
Composer George Gershwin spent months on the islands of Tidewater (South) Carolina exploring the Gullah community's life, speech, and music. The lifeblood of Catfish Row is not only its spiritual beliefs but its music as well, which truly informs the opera. This is music of the black church experience. Call-and-response is central to this music and most evident in "It Ain't Necessarily So," a kind of anti-sermon in song with a strong improvisational feel. George Gershwin was born to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, and although the family was not traditionally observant, some of the liturgy must have seeped through; the melody of "It Ain't Necessarily So" bears a very strong resemblance to the blessings after reading the Torah (the Hebrew Bible).
Co-creator DuBose Heyward recalled one night when Gershwin participated in a "shouting", a complex combination of dance rhythms beaten out by hands and feet. Gershwin was apparently the only white person who had ever correctly accomplished it. Gershwin had truly absorbed the music and rhythms of these unique people and used what he learned to powerful effect. The percussion battery in the pit contained drums and small instruments rarely if ever heard on the Met stage, many of them derived from traditional African music. They were used in some of the dance sequences and in the instrumental interludes.
An operatic "dream team" has been assembled for this revival (an older production was seen at the Met in 1990), and even with some slight personnel changes during the sixteen performances of the run, it's a knock-out of a cast. Helmed by Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess, the audience is completely engaged in the lives of the inhabitants of Catfish Row from beginning to end.
Eric Owens is giving the performance of a lifetime. His Porgy is emotionally nuanced, not only through his singing but also through his physical and facial reactions. His burnished bass-baritone carries throughout the vast spaces of the Met, his perfect diction obviating the need for the MetTitles (although they are there if desired). This was true, by the way, of nearly all the performers and always of the powerful chorus. It's worth mentioning because even though the opera is in English, it is sung with a Deep South accent overlaid with a hint of Gullah, and in the vernacular and accents of the area as they would have been in the early part of the 20th century. Everyone carried this off as though born singing or speaking this way. Astonishing.
It should also be remarked that in this production, Porgy is not attached to a goat cart, as other productions have depicted him. His right leg is in a leather brace, and he leans on a crutch on his right side, sometimes utilizing a walking stick in the left hand. He stands. This is no Porgy limited to sitting on his knees in the goat cart. While not fully "abled", this Porgy can walk and climb stairs. This is a major departure from what the audience is "used" to seeing. It makes Porgy less of an object of pity (although he is referred to as a "cripple") and enables Owens to portray Porgy as a more complex character. This Porgy can hold his own in a fight. He's not in the physical condition of "Crown", Bess' former lover. However, he is up to doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. Yet he can be sweet, gentle, and loving, as Owens portrays him with Bess and (most of) the people of Catfish Row.
Soprano Angel Blue perceives Bess as a "broken" person, her emotional life a complete mess until she and Porgy become a couple. He is the only person who shows her any compassion after Crown (sung and performed with frightening intensity by bass-baritone Alfred Walker) abandons Bess early in the first act. Her compelling interpretation of this drug-addled woman coupled with her magnificent voice and chemistry with Owens makes for an unforgettable Bess. She wins over the people of Catfish Row, a formidable community, to her side when she gives up drinking, drugs, Crown, and declares herself to be Porgy's woman. Her soaring, gorgeous duet with Porgy ("Bess, You is My Woman Now/I Loves You, Porgy") is the ecstatic, emotional high point of the opera, in a piece that holds many of those emotional moments. The audience actually finds her sympathetic, even when she can no longer resist either Crown or Sportin' Life. You believe in her basic decency and humanity, even when it isn't obvious. Ms. Blue is simply superb.
There's an embarrassment of riches in the supporting roles. In his Met debut, 30 year old tenor Frederick Ballentine is a knowing and slimy Sportin' Life. His slithery confidence that he'd land Bess in the end is fascinating to watch and to hear. Opening Night nerves may have kept him from consistently hitting every single note with the same amount of power, but it is obvious that this is a performer with a future. As it is with the others, Ballentine's diction was outstanding. His command of the stage is obvious during the important scene in which he delivers his "sermon." Soprano Latonia Moore's Serena gave the audience thrills and chills with her aria "My Man's Gone Now," a searing, agonizing moment in the opera that nearly brought down the house. Soprano Golda Schultz as Clara began the story with one of the most recorded lullabies in American music history, "Summertime," sung with infinite tenderness to her baby. Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as her husband Jake gives the audience a moment of levity when he decides to sing his own lullaby to his baby son in "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," which he sang with humor and flawless intonation. Veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves sang the role of Catfish Row matriarch Mariah with verve and authority.
The exceptionally fine chorus was as much a character in this opera as Porgy or Bess. Everyone seemed to have a backstory. No one was superfluous or "just" a member of the chorus. They were powerful, expressive, precise in their diction, and a joy to hear and see. Bravi tutti.
The always fine Met orchestra gave as much support as they could to the singers. A little more sparkle in the overture and a lot more orchestral color overall would be the icing on the musical cake. Conductor David Robertson held the Wagner-sized orchestra and ninety onstage singers firmly in hand for the full three hours and fifteen minutes.
Another remarkable feature of this production was the choreography of Camille A. Brown. In her Met debut, Ms. Brown's dances grew organically from what was happening onstage, and never looked forced or contrived. This is the most original and interesting choreography to be seen on the Met stage in a very long time.
Evocative lighting by Donald Holder, beautifully drawn and artfully used projections by Luke Halls, and a clever two level set design by Michael Yeargan easily put the audience into the world of Catfish Row.
Ever since its inception, the question of whether "Porgy and Bess" was a Broadway musical or a full-fledged opera has puzzled audiences and critics alike. This new production should put that question to rest for good. "Porgy and Bess" is grand opera in the truest, most marvelous sense. Judge for yourself. There are fifteen performances between now and February. There will be an HD presentation on February 1, 2020, the final performance of the run. For tickets and more information, go to metopera.org or call the Met Box Office at 212-362-6000.