By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera celebrated the opening of the 2019-20 season in grand style with a new production of Porgy and Bess, its first since the work’s company premiere in 1985. A festive gala audience was treated to a lavish staging of the Gershwins’ classic performed by a cast that couldn’t be bettered, even while the Met was reeling under another #MeToo scandal, this one involving tenor Plácido Domingo.
Porgy and Bess was a collaboration between brothers George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, author, with his wife Dorothy, of the 1927 play Porgy, based on his 1925 novel of the same name. On reading the novel, about a community of black fishermen in Charleston, S.C., George Gershwin immediately wanted to set it to music, but it wasn’t until 1932 that the Heywards were ready to discuss a musical treatment. The work — a musical? Gershwin called it a “folk opera” — opened in Boston and then on Broadway in 1935 with the all-black cast that Gershwin wanted. No Al Jolson in blackface here, as first suggested by DuBose, and no warmed-over traditional music. Gershwin wrote an entirely original American work.
The staging by James Robinson, a co-production with the English National Opera and the Dutch National Opera, took place on a large unit set representing the framing of a two-story building rotated on a turntable. Lighting defined mood and time of day, outlined the venue of each scene, and was invaluable in helping a viewer find the soloists on the crowded stage. During scene changes, subtle nature sound effects were piped into the auditorium while an image projected on the drop curtain suggested the locale to come (sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Donald Holder, projections by Luke Halls). Choreographer Camille A. Brown created dances drawn from popular social dances as well as from isolated Southern traditions, and the large chorus provided essential, mostly naturalistic movement. Though stylized, the production offered traditional storytelling.
Casting was exceptionally strong. While at least one company recently found it onerous to employ an all-black cast, as required by the Gershwin estate, the forces assembled by the Met boasted many singers already familiar to local and international audiences.
Early in Act I, soprano Golda Schultz set a high bar with her silken legato in Clara’s lullaby, “Summertime.” Soprano Latonia Moore as Serena earned the first of several show-stopping ovations with her wrenching lament, “My Man’s Gone Now,” and maintained a strong presence as the community’s voice of faith. Bess was sung by the luscious-voiced soprano Angel Blue, whose star has deservedly risen at the Met since her highly praised Mimi last season. Her Bess was a lost soul, whose poignancy was underlined by the beauty of her voice.
Eric Owens was magisterial as Porgy. His somewhat stolid presence nonetheless conveyed steadfast dignity, and his rolling bass sounded at its richest. Alfred Walker was a sonorous and charismatic Crown, Bess’ common-law husband. As Sportin’ Life, a role associated with Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr. (in the 1959 movie version), debuting tenor Frederick Ballentine gave a sassily inflected, irresistible account of the local drug dealer and all-around bad boy.
With 22 soloists in the production, there isn’t room to single out everyone, but I have rarely encountered such a uniformly impressive cast. Standouts in smaller roles included mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a legendary Carmen, who stole her every scene as the outspoken matriarch Maria. Soprano Leah Hawkins, a Lindemann Young Artist, drew cheers for her short but haunting and exquisite solo as the Strawberry Woman.
David Robertson led the complex score with brisk efficiency but little swing. From a seat at the back of the house, the orchestra sounded too muffled to comment upon, though the solo banjo in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” stuck out as perfunctory and square (and possibly overmiked). But Robertson (along with chorus masters Donald Palumbo and David Moody) deserve high praise for taming the onstage ensemble of as many as 80 singers in the exceptionally intricate music. Gershwin’s influences ranged from minstrelsy to Berg, posing stylistic and especially rhythmic challenges for the superb 60-member chorus, and coordinating the layered writing required the sure hand that Robertson provided.
Porgy and Bess is a musical dramatization of life in a working-class African-American community created by white artists during a time of social upheaval (the story dates from the manic Roaring Twenties, but the opera premiered six years into the Great Depression). In 2019, both the cultural appropriation and the racial clichés of the libretto struck me as particularly cringe-worthy. But beyond the problematic depiction of African-Americans as uneducated and venal, the music and lyrics are so well crafted that I was swept away by the originality and power of its storytelling. This is an American version of Italian verismo, folding elements like Gullah worship traditions and ragtime into an idiom that straddles post-Romantic lyricism and jazz.
At its heart, Porgy is a tragic love triangle with complications: Bess, torn between her common-law mate and her new love, upends the narrative by leaving for New York with her erstwhile drug dealer when the going gets rough. The pivotal scene when Bess yields to Sportin’ Life, abandoning hope that Porgy will return from jail, was the single moment when the tragedy truly moved me. Outside of that, much of the action is atmospheric filler, in the manner of Cavalleria rusticana, with the chorus providing local color as well as reinforcement of and commentary on the plot. The production at times felt crammed with people and superfluous action (those dancers!), but Gershwin’s inventive score, trimmed of perhaps half an hour of music, inspired a propulsive evening of musical invention and thrilling singing.
Porgy and Bess runs for six more performances through Oct. 16, with another seven performances beginning Jan. 8. For tickets, go here. The final performance on Feb. 1 will be screened live in cinemas worldwide.