Porgy and Bess: the Triumph of Catfish Row
|Porgy and Bess, photo @ Paola Kudacki|
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|
|John Bubbles, Todd Duncan and Ann Brown of the 1935 original cast|
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|
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|
Here is her rendition of "My Man's Gone Now":
|Ballentine and Graves, photo @ Ken Howard|
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|
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|
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."