There was a poignant moment at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday September 30 as a staff member announced that the evening’s performance of Porgy and Bess would be dedicated to the great African-American soprano Jessye Norman. A poignant moment, and a timely reminder of the increasingly impressive roster of singers of colour who grace the Met’s stage. The ensuing three-and-a-quarter hours followed through on that reminder, largely sweeping away familiar questions of opera versus musical and the issues of cultural naivety that regularly dog productions of the Gershwin masterpiece.

Eric Owens (centre) as Porgy. All photos © Ken Howard / Met Opera

The opera – and why anyone questions its validity as an opera I’ll never know – has its roots in the 1925 novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a white, South Carolina native who wrote sympathetically, if with limited in-depth first-hand experience of the trials and tribulations of the poor black population of Charleston and its surrounds. His Catfish Row is a fictionalised version of Cabbage Row, a street whose dilapidated mansions had been turned into tenements for the descendants of freed slaves. Kittiwah Island, where Act I’s church picnic takes place, is based on Kiawah, an island 25 miles south of Charleston.

Along with his wife Dorothy, Heyward adapted his novel as a successful Broadway play, and then collaborated with George and Ira Gershwin in turning it into an opera, much of his well-meaning but hokey dialogue forming the basis for lines in the sung libretto. While Ira Gershwin helped lift Heyward’s sentiments into catchy song lyrics, George steeped himself in the sounds of the region – spirituals, Latin rhythms, the local African-infused Gullah music of Carolina – but also jazz, honky-tonk and Tin Pan Alley to suggest the changing times and the lure of faraway New York. Out of respect, he chose not to quote local material directly, instead coming up with his own, highly convincing versions in a score from which an endless parade of tunes has been pilfered ever since to form an essential element of the Great American Songbook.

Alfred Walker as Crown and Angel Blue as Bess

Yes it is dated, but we know that, so why worry? Porgy and Bess is first and foremost a story of community, an idea that James Robinson’s handsome staging for the Met takes and runs with. That it succeeds so well is a tribute to the strength and depth of the casting and the vision of the creative team: Michael Yeargan (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting). Set in period, ie. around the early 20th-century, a 60-strong, specially assembled chorus replaces the Met’s regular singers presenting a vivid snapshot of a society struggling to make ends meet in a time of deprivation and discrimination.

Yeargan’s skeletal wooden buildings allow us to see inside the home of Serena Robbins, the god-fearing woman whose husband’s murder at the hands of Bess’s lover, the brutal Crown, triggers the events of the opera. Downstairs lives the disabled beggar Porgy, the only person prepared to offer Bess shelter from the police. Elsewhere we glimpse the daily lives of storekeeper and local matriarch Maria, the fisherman Jake, his wife Clara and their new baby. The upstairs bustle includes a wealth of other folk eating, sleeping, keeping home and occasionally gambling, drinking and indulging in recreational drugs supplied by wide-boy and reprobate Sportin’ Life.

Picnic scene from Porgy and Bess

Robinson’s somewhat scrubbed-up take on Catfish Row is idealised yet avoids sentimentality, subtly enhanced by Camille A. Brown’s character-led but semi-abstracted choreography. It’s most obviously embodied by a handful of loose-limbed dancers, but equally manifested by the chorus who move far more fluidly than your average operatic ensemble. Robinson also manages to take the sting off the “hit songs” by finding just the right vibe to incorporate them into the action (having Porgy sing I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ in an intimate group with the children he is no longer “cross” with – as we are told – is typically inspired).

At the heart of the storytelling is a pair of fine performances by Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles. Each character is “broken” in their own way, and their path to mutual “repair” is sensitively charted. Owens takes his cue from Porgy’s desolate expression that “when God made cripple, he made him to be lonely”. Building his character from isolated outsider to a man suddenly blessed when he least expected it, his portrayal is achingly touching, laced with decency and an inner nobility. The voice is dark and warm, if occasionally tight at the top, a wobble apparent but not overly troubling.

Catfish Row

Blue is splendid, playing Bess as a complex if fundamentally decent woman from the start, one whose addictions to happy dust (cocaine) and sex in the specific form of the testosterone-fuelled Crown will repeatedly prove her downfall. The voice is thrilling, top notes ravishingly open and with excellent diction. Her two duets – Bess, You Is My Woman Now and I Loves You Porgy – lie at the heart of the opera, but her pitiful What You Want With Bess, the exhilarating The Train Is At The Station, and her lovely snatch of Summertime, each excite in different ways.

Of course, Owens and Blue are opera singers, as are all the Met cast, and there are times when less cover at the top of voices might lend proceedings a more colloquial air. Both Frederick Ballentine, who otherwise gives a winning if rather heavily “presented” portrayal of the shape-shifting Sportin’ Life, and Alfred Walker, whose Crown crackles with unpredictable energy, might benefit from opening up on occasion.

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess

That problem certainly never afflicts Golda Schultz, whose sweet-toned Clara offers a radiant account of Summertime, the hit number that opens the show. Her gentle concern for husband Jake, the virile-sounding Ryan Speedo Green, who adds another rich-toned portrayal to his recent Met portfolio, helps bring a natural realism to a couple doomed by the basic need to put sufficient food on the table for their expanding family.

Equally affecting is Latonia Moore as Serena (Australians will know her from OA’s Aida on Sydney Harbour and Don Carlos). Here she cements her reputation for ardent singing, delivering a show-stopping performance of the heart-wrenching My Man’s Gone Now, and touching support in the gospel-inflected Doctor Jesus. Met veteran Denyce Graves commands the stage as a no-nonsense Maria, with Errin Duane Brooks and Reginald Smith, Jr. both making there mark vocally and dramatically as Mingo and Jim.

Latonia Moore as Serena

In minor roles, Chauncey Parker stands out vocally as the ill-fated Robbins, later reincarnated in a cheeky cameo as the local Crab Man. He and his female opposite number, Leah Hawkins as a sumptuous-voiced Strawberry Woman, won deserved applause for their Act 2 solos. Even the often-overlooked local women, Lily and Annie, are strongly cast with Tichina Vaughn (a standout maid in last season’s Elektra) and Chanáe Curtis both making you wish they had more to sing.

Last but not least, driving all before him in the pit is outgoing Sydney Symphony Music Director and Chief Conductor David Robertson, whose reading of the score is little short of revelatory. His judicious, thoughtful approach does much to wed Gerswhin’s classical aspirations to his Broadway sensibilities – a tricky one to pull off in a score as disparate as Porgy. By teasing out orchestral colour, Robertson demonstrates the composer’s debts to Puccini (especially in his motivic development) and French and Spanish colourists like Ravel and Falla. At the same time he doesn’t skimp the show’s debt to the Great White Way in numbers like I Can’t Sit Down and There’s a Boat Dats Leavin’ Soon For New York. But it’s in the powerful chorus and ensemble numbers that frame the funeral scene and the hurricane that Robertson proves beyond a doubt that this is an opera, and a very great one at that.

Frederick Ballantine as Sportin’ Life and Angel Blue as Bess

The show has a long run in New York with performances in October and then again through January. To judge from the number of people standing at the back it’s a hot ticket, but Australian audiences will be able to enjoy it in cinemas on April 4 next year in what should be an even more immediate HD experience.

Porgy and Bess is at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until February 1, 2020. Australians can see it in cinemas on April 4, 2020


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