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The Gershwins “Porgy And Bess” At The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, Saturday, February 15th, Review

 

Great American Songbook classics composed by George Gershwin? There are many, but “Summertime”? “I Got Plenty Of Nothin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It AIn’t Necessarily So,” “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin Soon To New York”…? all of those are from the jazz opera “Porgy And Bess”. After missing a performance due to illness earlier this year, I bought another ticket off the secondary market and finally made it last Friday for the final performance. Here is the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini on the production at Lincoln Center’s Opera House (now closed): “authoritative and gripping”.

While watching “Porgy And Bess” from high in the cheap seats, the pop songs fit in and the mix of folk, spirituals and pop are completely unique, and the spirituals have never sounded better. And it is the spirituals that push the production into the third and best one I’ve seen, and, probably the best of all times. Serena, the soprano Latonia Moore’s, “My Man’s Gone Now,” was beyond being heartbreaking, it was also as an indictment of poverty and how one can’t even grieve in peace. Serena’s husband is killed by Crown (Alfred Walker) and unless she can raise $25 to bury him, his body will be given to hospitals to be cut apart and studied. I’ve heard Ella Fitzgerald’s “My Man Is Gone” and I’ve heard Latonia Moore’s keening, distraught recent recording of the same production released December, 2019. But watching Moore’s devastating performance in person is an experience of a lifetime. I live in a small apartment building, six apartments on a floor, and I heard a man sshout in horror a couple of evenings ago, and discovered later his mother had just died, “she has no pulse,” he screamed, and then a lot of commotion and then nothing. In his voice, I could hear the horror of fresh death, it is something that can’t be faked, and it is something Moore manages to add to her voice, not just a wide ranged smooth from sky high wails to low down growls of ineluctable horror, but the sound we make when we discover someone we love has just died. It stopped the show and was the highlight of the evening.

Porgy is a crippled beggar living in Charleston, South Carolina in 1930 (the opera was first performed in 1935), and Bess is a drug addicted. lost soul living with the violent dock worker Crown and buying drugs from Sportin’ Life when after the murder that begins the opera, on Cannery Row, Bess is thrown out of the community till Porgy brings her in. The possibility of a decent life for Bess is derailed when she hooks up again with Crown, leading to a fight between Crown and Porgy that ends with Porgy killing Crown.

At the time the opera, which Gershwin would only allow to be sung by black people, and which is written in the ebonics of the time, was already a problem. The almost four hours of  music (cut to three hours plus a half hour intermission) is among the finest in jazz and folk, though the complaint that dogged it then and dogs it now is cultural appropriation from the all white composer and writers,   George’s compositions, with a  libretto written by DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin (Heyward for the spirituals, Ira for the pop). It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play “Porgy,”  itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name, according to Wikipedia. I have never quite gotten cultural appropriation, everybody should be able to perform anything they want to at all. What a boring world if we all have to stay in our lane.

Eric Owens, the two time Grammy Award winning bass-baritone, has the role of a career as he begins his 50th decade, Owens is clearly at a peak of of his career and his duet with Angel Blue (a Bess for  all times -when she return to Crown at the picnic she is also a great actress) on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”,  a perfect song with all the strangeness and power of new love, especially the “We’ll go swingin’ through de years A-Singin’, mornin’ time an’ evenin’ time an’ summer time an’ winter time” is such a perfect expression of both permanence and the finite.

I had nosebleeds and the Metropolitan Opera house was not amplified, so the music seemed to be coming from a great distance, and the figures on the stage as though being watched from a birds eye view, or from the future. It is an indictment of myself and how I consume music that I found the lack of amplification a distraction, I wanted it to thunder, at least in places. But if you compare the singing to the in the 2012 production (featuring the outstanding Audra McDonald as Bess), Broadway takes second place to the opera. So does the first production I saw (the 1990s Met take was not as good). First and foremost, the chorus is magnificent and the presence of so many great singers pushes the denizens of Canary (on the docks), moves the entire production from depression era and ghettoized squalor to a real world where poverty is one aspect of the Church loving, tight knit extended family, with the men throwing dice in the evening to blow off steam after backbreaking work all day long. This is less race and more class warfare and the use of black slang, which comes across poorly, reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire dialect in “Wuthering Heights” (also for class reasons: “‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.”), this is part of the “Porgy And Bess” puzzle, the folk story is so strange, why this story? What happened here to make it worth spotlighting? Porgy’s disability? What part of black lore, of Brier rabbit, is it doing whether or not it chooses to or is meant to do? Perhaps its slightness is meant to highlight the reality of Cannery Row, certainly David Robertson’s (the director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) conducting is precisely as written, which means jazz elements are deconstructed at the overall sound and the hit songs fit in seamlessly with the spirituals and the terrific chorus who shine both early (“Seems Like Dem Bones”) and later (“I Ain’t Got No Shame”), where the sheer, physical pleasure of being alive is undeniable.

The antecedent here is Kern And Hammerstein’s 1927 “Showboat” -about miscegenation on the mighty Mississippi, “Showboat” is one of our greatest musicals of all time but it isn’t an opera and  it isn’t where George Gershwin’s interest lies. As it was throughout his short, brilliant lifespan  George was less concerned with socio-political disasters for black communities at the end of the great depression, and more to do with his love of black music. That’s why he is doing it all, he adores the sounds. And so do we. The Broadway albums, and certainly Ella and Armstrong 1958 selections from the musical, for all their perfections, aren’t this. Seen last Friday, “Porgy And Bess” is a multimedia study of transmogrification, the hard life on Cannery Row leads directly to tragedy  (despite its nominally happy ending), it looks grungy and difficult, a hard life, yet not all blues and grays even as a storm wrecks (sic) havoc on the community. The people, from the baby boy being lullabyed at the top, through the next train leaving conclusion is about life among the poor and the sound is about life among the poor black people.

In theory, I see why there is immense dislike from the black community to the opera, Bess is unfaithful and weak, Sportin’ Life is early Snoop Dogg, Crown a homicidal lunatic: they feel like racist caricatures. But Porgy isn’t, neither is Clara, Serena or Robbins, nor the back chorus, these are people living and dying and because of that so are the at first look villains and weaklings. This “Porgy And Bess’ takes it straight to what matters to Gershwin, sharing black “folk music”. It might be schizophrenic but only within its own decisions.

While the ethnicity of the denizens of Cannery Row  is  African-American second generation antebellum, the story is a product of its time, the Great Depression lasted from 1929 through 1939. the opera occurs in the middle and the world it inhabits is clearly a mirror imagine of the entire United States, the state of its people the same as was happening from New York City to the Southern Plains. Black Americans had all the horror of white Americans with the addition of institutionalized racism that didn’t allow them to take part in the economic safety net. By having “Porgy And Bess” in Charleston, it takes a magnifying glass to how people live in poverty and racism: they live the same as without it, and “Porgy And Bess” turns away from the brutal racism to tell a story embedded in it but also above it, “Porgy And Bess” was 1930s USA in miniature, musically it was about Afro-American music, emotionally its net was even wider than that. In the end, as Jesus Christ once noted, the poor will always be with us, and they will be the same in the broadest of senses whatever the individual circumstances might be.

Grade: A

 

 

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