Porgy and Bess: the Triumph of Catfish Row

Porgy and Bess, photo @ Paola Kudacki
Disclaimer: this is my first live experience with George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. I have listened to recordings and seen videos. But I have no deep knowledge of this opera and score -- I mostly knew the big hit tunes like "Summertime," "Bess, you is my woman now," and "I got plenty of nothing."

Therefore my reaction to the Met's new production of Porgy and Bess is going to sound green. In fact I know I'm going to embarrass myself. But this experience was so memorable that it's worth writing about, even as I'm about to probably make some embarrassing newbie mistakes.

The historic Catfish Row
Porgy and Bess is not an easy opera to sit through. The Met production cut the opera to a 3 and a half hour-ish running time, but George Gershwin's score and Dubose Heyward's libretto demand that the audience immerse itself completely in the Catfish Row community.  Catfish Row is an actual neighborhood in historic Charleston, South Carolina but for the purposes of the opera it's a self-contained society with its strengths and dirty laundry. The opera stubbornly refuses to turn into a traditional narrative -- for every scene that moves the story of the protagonists forward, there's just many scenes that are just local color. A woman selling strawberries (an amazing Leah Hawkins) gets as much attention as Bess's drug addiction. It's a strange comparison but the only opera I can think of that demands such complete immersion in a self-contained society is Parsifal's Knights of the Holy Grail.

John Bubbles, Todd Duncan and Ann Brown of the 1935 original cast
But the opera brings rich rewards to those willing to take themselves to Catfish Row. Gershwin's score has to be a crowning achievement (pun intended) in American music -- he effortlessly weaves jazz, blues, spirituals, popular music, and Gershwin's own musical voice to create a sound that is both timeless and evocative of a 1920's Southern African-American community. Heyward's libretto was controversial as some thought it racist and an offensive cultural appropriation, but the fact is in 1935 there was an opera that focused on an independent black community. Police brutality in this opera is presented matter-of-factly without any white protagonist to "save" anyone. If you think about the "mammies," servants, and vaudeville acts that black performers were relegated to in Hollywood during that era, Porgy and Bess was revolutionary. And the opera did find support from prominent African American writers like Langston Hughes.

For the most part, the Met's new production assembled a cast that did justice to Gershwin's music. Let's get the negatives out of the way first. David Robertson's conducting was alternately lugubrious and overly loud and brassy -- this isn't Elektra.

Golda Schultz (Clara) started the evening with a rendition of the iconic "Summertime" that was wan and thin-voiced. And in the important role of community matriarch Maria the veteran mezzo Denyce Graves still looks like a million bucks but was in rough voice -- raspy and wobbly. At times she was channeling Rex Harrison with the sing-speak approach. This is a character role but even within those confines she was hard to listen to.

Walker and Blue, photo @ Ken Howard
But the positives: the chorus! The Met production assembled a special chorus of all African American singers and they sounded magnificent. Finest moment: when Bess leads the chorus in "The Train is in the Station."

Angel Blue as Bess. What a voice, what a triumph. Blue is a striking woman with a voice that shimmers and glows. Her upper register is her glory -- it's one of those voices that gets bigger and freer the higher she goes. She sang some high flying riffs in many of her vocal lines, especially the duet with Crown at Kittiwah Island. Blue commands the stage, and her seductive voice makes us understand why Porgy is so crazy for her. The way her voice soared in "Bess, you is my woman now" or the reprise of "Summertime" made one want to hit instant replay. If I had one quibble with Blue it's that her portrayal of Bess lacks vulnerability. She's a tough survivor from beginning to end, and I think Porgy needs to see more of a wounded bird. In this production, Bess's love for Porgy never seems genuine, and you always know she's going to leave him.

Latonia Moore, photo @ Ken Howard
In the smaller role of Serena Latonia Moore also had a total triumph. Moore like Blue has a beautiful, warm timbre and sweet stage presence. She stopped the show with a breathtaking rendition of "My Man's Gone Now." Huge applause. I've loved Latonia Moore ever since I saw her in NYCO's Tosca. Really hope to hear her sing more in NY.

Here is her rendition of "My Man's Gone Now":

Ballentine and Graves, photo @ Ken Howard
Frederick Ballentine was excellent in his Met debut as Sportin' Life. Sportin' Life is the one character that crosses the line into offensive stereotyping. But Ballentine made him charming and full of the kind of joie de vivre that makes you like him. His rendition of "It ain't necessarily so" had the right jazzy accents, and he was also the strongest actor of the night. His seduction of Bess with the promises of easy money and happy dust in New York was ... well, it would definitely work on a certain type of woman.

Ryan Speedo Green (Jake) and Alfred Walker (Crown) were both very fine bass baritones. Green's big, rich voice made me want to one day hear him as Porgy. I've actually seen Alfred Walker before -- he was Titurel in the last Parsifal revival and the Speaker in some revivals of Magic Flute. Walker's Crown had no outward charm. He was a brute through and through. He also had no sexual chemistry with Angel Blue's Bess -- maybe this the director's choice but the only thing that connected them seemed to be booze and happy dust. Walker's bass baritone was also very strong and he thundered mightily in the big duet with Bess.

Owens and Blue, photo @ Ken Howard
Eric Owens' Porgy was the portrayal I was most mixed about. He worked really hard, and his shy, unassuming stage presence worked for parts of the opera -- Porgy is after all someone who manages to live a reclusive life in a very crowded community. But a couple things prevented this from being (IMO) a great portrayal. For one, the role lies way too high for him, which he actually acknowledged in an interview I heard over Sirius. Most of the music sits in the weakest, most colorless part of his voice. The other piece is that his Porgy doesn't develop more passion and fire as the opera continues. "I got plenty of nothing" sounded glum rather than joyous. His vocal lines in "Bess, you is my woman now" sounded paternal and calming, while Blue's voice soared in ecstasy. His killing of Crown looks almost perfunctory, and him shouting the epic line "Bess, you've got a man now. You've got Porgy!" was too mild. And Owens ran out of gas vocally so his final anthem "I'm on my way" didn't have the gut-punching impact it should.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not a bad performance. It just wasn't a home run and the opera really is PORGY (and Bess).

The brief walk-on roles were all great -- the white detectives Grant Neale and Bobby Mittelstadt were exactly the types of "Southern gentlemen" who are appallingly racist but do it with a veneer of good manners. They got character-booed at the curtain calls. Arthur Woodley was very funny as the "lawyer" who tries to sell Porgy a fake divorce paper for Crown and Bess. Also loved Chauncey Packer in the dual role of Robbins/Crab Man and Leah Hawkins as the Strawberry Woman.

Yeargan's unit set
James Robinson's production is very typical of Peter Gelb's productions -- functional, efficient, a touch sterile. Michael Yeargan's rotating unit set of wooden frames of the houses that would theoretically populate Catfish Row make scene changes easy, and Catherine Zuber's costumes are bright and colorful. Camille Brown's choreography is rather repetitive -- very Alvin Ailey-ish . The "fight director" David Leong didn't really make the two major fights of the evening all that menacing. The craps fight in Act One that ends with Crown killing Robbins is muddled, while the later fight where Porgy kills Crown is confusing. I know Porgy is supposed to snap Crown's neck but from where I sat it looked more like an Eric Garner chokehold.

There are a few directorial choices I didn't agree with. In this production, Bess both initiates the sexual encounter with Crown at Kittiwah Island and succumbs to Sportin' Life immediately after taking a hit of happy dust again. More ambiguity about whether Bess will take the happy dust would have made for Porgy's discovery in the final scene to be more devastating. I think it's better to have Bess really fight the good fight to stay clean. I also wish they didn't have Porgy simply walking offstage in the finale. He made his entrance on the goat cart, and the libretto calls for him to leave on the same goat cart. The ending was anti-climactic.

Here's a feel of what the dancing in this production looks like:

Despite these quibbles I don't regret going for an instance. Porgy and Bess is such a great opera but so difficult to mount. No production is ever going to be perfect. It's an incredible experience in the theater, and the story makes such an impact. I was so immersed in the opera that at the end when Porgy makes his quixotic but surely doomed trip to find Bess, I kept thinking "I hope he doesn't find her, she's so selfish. I hope a nice family takes him in somewhere along the way."


  1. I always enjoy your comments and reviews. And here we are, almost on the same page:

    1. Thanks! I enjoy reading your reviews for bachtrack. I also write for bachtrack except I cover dance.!


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