George Gershwin’s âPorgy and Bessâ is both easy and impossible to love.
Its contradictions were perhaps best captured in Truman Capote’s “Muses Are Heard”, his 1956 dispatch of a historic stopover for a touring company in the Soviet Union. âPorgy,â he writes, was like an allergen to Russian officials – his erotic, God-fearing, superstitious characters.
But his reflection of America was another story. âA race exploited at the mercy of southern whites, pushed out of poverty and isolated in the Catfish Row ghetto,â Capote said, âcould not be more pleasantly imagined if the Culture Department had affected one of his own writers on the job. “
âPorgyâ – which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday after two years, its performances still exhilarating but its staging still bland and naturalistic – never ceases to raise questions during its three hours. And after a long pandemic shutdown, in which the Met, like the rest of the country, has taken a fresh look at racial inequalities, these questions are increasingly difficult to resolve.
Just a couple: Does “Porgy”, one of the top contenders for the Great American Opera, fulfill Antonin Dvorak’s prophecy that this country’s local music is based on dark melodies? If so, did the all-white creative team on the artwork achieve this goal by exploiting stereotypes?
The opera is full of stories and troubled receptions. Of the two works currently on display at the Met, Puccini’s âTurandotâ takes place in a fairy-tale China from late Romantic Orientalism; Wagner’s âDie Meistersinger von NÃ¼rnbergâ ends with an astonishing hymn to German nationalism. Classics like these tend to be defended with a logic that some have applied to “Porgy”: it is an art form that deals with the outlines and the mythical. Who are Porgy and Bess if not just another pair of damned lovers?
But this argument is on more fragile ground with âPorgyâ than with âTurandotâ; Gershwin’s work inevitably carries the baggage of American history. And its characters, mythical or not, can resemble cartoons of black pain, violence and poverty. Black performers have had widely divergent responses to the play, but what James Baldwin called “a white man’s vision of black life” has remained entrenched in the repertoire, supported by the same institutions that have long ignored the work of black composers.
There is no clear resolution to any of the problems that have haunted “Porgy” since its premiere in 1935. But it is here to stay – a discomfort to experience, to ponder, and to deal with, not to abolish. It is no coincidence that the Met accompanied the debut of this production two years ago with face-saving initiatives like lectures, an album celebrating black artists from its past and an exhibition to match, and the announcement that he would present his first opera by a black composer. (This work, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard, opened the season in September.)
If âPorgyâ is the Great American Opera, it’s more for its score – an innovative and seamless blend of grand opera, Broadway, and spiritual and folk melodies – than its subject matter. (For that, we have the middle of the melting pot of “Street Scene” by Kurt Weill, the original sin of American greed in “Regina” by Marc Blitzstein or the American verism in “Highway 1, USA” by William Grant Still, to name a few.)
And at the Met, James Robinson’s production – a literal mostly shy presentation of the libretto, by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin – undermines the defense of “Porgy” as timeless mythical with its direction and realistic designs (by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber). Even the pre-show curtain, a towering photograph from Catfish Row, suggests something documentary. In contradiction to all this, the stylized and resolutely modern choreography of Camille A. Brown.
But in the pit, conductor David Robertson argued for the triumphs of Gershwin’s score, with fluid and clearly articulated stylistic changes. âPorgyâ is also one of the great lyrical portraits of a community; as such, its true stars are the backing vocals, matching the instrumentalists with vigor and a richly textured delivery.
Like Porgy, bass-baritone Eric Owens sang with limited power, but imbued every line with dramatic consideration. Soprano Angel Blue’s Bess was one of the tragic juxtapositions: bright in “Oh, the train is at the station” and shattering in the confrontational cover of Act III of “Summertime.” (This standard was first heard, lush and elegantly decorated, at the start of the opera, sung by Janai Brugger as Clara).
Much of the cast remains intact as of 2019: Denyce Graves’ caring and comedic Maria; the mighty Jake of Ryan Speedo Green; the equally powerful but menacing crown of Alfred Walker; the flamboyant sporting life of Frederick Ballentine; and Serena of Latonia Moore, the best artist and tune duo of this production in the show “My man is gone now”, and imposing comfort in the last “Oh, Doctor Jesus”.
Moore, Green and Blue – all Met regulars – come to this revival straight out of âFire Shut Up in My Bonesâ. As recently as last year, the idea of ââtwo operas with all-black ensembles presented to the company in the same month would have been fantastic. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.
Porgy and Bess
Until December 12 at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan; metopera.org.