The Libretto of the folk opera, Porgy and Bess was prepared by Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, with music by George Gershwin. (1898-1937) The premiere was held at the Alvin theatre, Broadway, New York, 1935, with cuts. However, before I explain the details behind the writing of this opera and other items of interest, I shall write the review first. There is a biography of George Gershwin by Howard Pollack. His life and work.2006. University of California Press.I bought it from a secondhand book shop.
The bonus is most interesting, where the participants in the opera give their views. Porgy, a cripple and beggar, Eric Owens, who was in the New Met Ring as Alberich states, "The opera is quite a complex piece. Musically the role is a very challenging role. Poor guy, he is a bit simple, for he finds Bess a wonderful woman, but she is not attracted to him. However, Bess begins to love him." Bess Laquita Mitchell, "I get so happy when I hear this music. I like the character of Bess, she sparkles with fire. So I am multi-facited instead of one dimensional. However, People no matter where the opera is played cheer at the end". Chauncey Parker, sportin' life. "I grew up in the South as a African American boy. I feel a real connection with this opera, as it is so genuine to me. I grew up with people like sporting life. My mother who is a church goer, bought a few goods that was obviously stolen from a person who was so charming and polite, she could not resist. I based a part of sportin life on him." Lester Lynch, Crown, "this is grand opera.". The conductor John DeMain. "Porgy and Bess is the great American opera. Yet it is a theatrical universal story. Gershwin went to the Docks, and also heard how the Afro Americans prayed in church. The costumes and scenery is up dated to the early 1950's, the start of Civil rights movement. The influences are Stravinsky, Ravel, Jazz, blues, plus Tango. I compare this opera to Bizet's Carmen.(I disagree,Porgy and Bess is more realistic-T). I am always exhausted at the end of Porgy and Bess". David Gockley once General manager of Houston Grand opera,now General Director of San Francisco Opera States," with the 1976 Porgy and Bess we restored the operatic elements. Also, the material that had been cut during the the second Broadway version, and other productions, including the recitatives that had not been done since the 1935 production."
Synopsis: Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston, South Carolina. Acts 1, Act 2 and 3, becomes one Act. A Afro-American ghetto neighbourhood near the harbour, "Catfish Row, where Porgy a crippled beggar, is in love with Bess, but troubled by Bess's involvement with other members of the community. One of them is a thug named Crown, who loses his tyrannical hold on Bess only when he is killed by Porgy during a quarrel. Another gambler sportin life, eventually convinces Bess to accompany him to New York. The opera ends with Porgy setting off in Pursuit of Bess.
John DeMain conducts the San Francisco with vigor, and brings out the rhythm,the dance tunes, arias, and the music never lets up even when there is dialogue. He captures the spirit of the music, bubbling over with youthful energy. For Gershwin was only 39 when he died of a brain tumour. What might have been, if he had lived another 20 years.
Act 1 is a run down mansion, brown and dingy, with old rusty tin walls, with doors made out of cloth. Before the Kittiwah Island scene, the curtain comes down, then rises again. Here you can see the sunset and a run down show ground fun ride in the back ground. Also the outline of old buildings, surrounding a park. In this envionment, the costumes change from darkish, to light, showing the happiness of the occasion. There is a banner, Repent ye saith the Lord. Sportin life stands out, for he is dressed in a yellow waistcoat, with a black shirt and violet pants,singing " It aint necessarily so". Act 2 resorts back to the same scenery. There is always a lot of activity in the various scenes.
Eric Owens a Bass baritone is Porgy, not acting him. The part was made for him. " Bess, you is my woman" sung with Bess, Laquita Mitchell, who is a lyrical soprano. She has dyed red hair, caught in a bad life style. Sings and plays the part in a way that is truthful to the part. Crown, Lester Lynch,sings the part of the menacing thug and understands the mind set. Sportin life, Chauncey Packer knows this type, and acts and sings him as if he is actually the person. Serena, Karen Slack,a Mezzo, is a bible basher, married to a drunk, Robbins, Michael Austin. She is very believable. Maria, keeper of the cookshop, Alteouise deVaughn is a mezzo. Both Slack and deVaughn,are marvellous in the trio with Owens, in "Oh, Bess, Oh Where's My Bess".? Clara, Angel Blue, sings the opening Summertime, holding a baby. I do think she could sing the part of Bess. All the parts are well taken. Individually they stand out, and the choir is excellent. There are white policemen in the cast. The cast and chorus bring out the Rhythm, the beautiful songs and spirituals, with individual themes to remind us of a incident, like Porgy and Bess's love duet, or Summertime, as well. There are no weak links in this great production.
But according to the booklet, from the very beginning, "Porgy and Bess,was seen as racist, as was the book and play upon which this opera is based. Many African-Americans objected to what they saw as a racist and sterotypical view of blacks, that whites wanted to see. Many black performers refused to take part in the piece. With the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950's the opera went out of fashion for about 20 years. The debate still rages about these points of view".
For me, this opera is a slice of life which for 1935, may have been ahead of its time. The reason is the libretto and songs are well written, by whites attempting to understand a part of the Southern Afro-American experience in the great depression. It certainly is not racist. Growing up under apartheid in South Africa,I know what racism is. (I was told to leave because of my stance against it). This opera was written by people who were not, and wished to show how people in these peculiar circumstances dealt with life, and the humanity they still maintained, against all odds. "Those white folks tried to put one over me" sings Porgy. " I aint done nothing wrong, sir", says the Honey man when the police take him to the station. I think for the time this opera was subtly subversive, for Gershwin shows sympathy for the Afro American plight. "Oh, Bess, Oh Where's my Bess", shows this understanding. A truely heart rendering aria and ending. A opera which is sung in the way the Afro-American's spoke at the time.
George Gershwin truely liked Afro American music and the musicans and wished to pay homage to them. He certainly did not want to offend them. But the book, play and opera was controversal. With two killings. Bess who is not married, drinks and takes drugs. Has a child by Porgy.(when you had to be married in those times). A thug Crown and a drug peddler,Sportin Life. Also, the use of spiritual songs in this environment. No wonder there was an uproar from the African- American community, who were mainly upstanding, and were not all into drugs. But it could be argued, America was in the middle of the great depression, and some poor whites lived that way. But the Afro Americans probably would reply, that even if it was set in 1935, that there was segregation in the South and afterwards. They were judged by their colour, and could not go to white hotels,cinemas and eateries, bars and sit on buses with whites. Also, could not have jobs that whites had. A opera it is, not a hybrid, but a great American folk opera. For Gershwin used elements of the musical, classical music, operatic convention, mainly spirituals, blues and jazz. In the same way, American Phillip Glass later did, by including modern pop music, amid minmalism to create opera.
I review this opera with a different background in music; I have a huge collection of Opera and Classical music, but also of World music, Classical Indian,traditional African,Flamenco and Fado and so forth. Also, I like music such as New Orleans jazz, big bands of the 1940's, rock music from the 1960's to now. As Weill once stated "there is only good and bad music". So I throughly recommend this opera because I am in a postion to do so, because of my musical taste.
The sound is good and so is the bluray film. You actually feel as though you were at the opera house. Recorded at the San Francisco opera, June 2009. Directed by Francesca Zambello.
REGION: All. 1080i Full HD-16.9. PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Subtitles: English/German/French/Korean. Bonus: Interviews with artist, conductor and creative team.
Gershwin took piano lessons and learnt harmony. He had a long held interest in African-American experience. Attracted to ragtime as a teenage pianist, borrowing blues words for songs from 1920 onwards,and identified as a jazz composer from the time of Rhapsody in Blue (1924). In 1919 he wrote Swanee which made him famous. He wrote popular music for the Broadway stage, Cinema scores and serious music for the Concert Hall. But in 1926 he read the book, and then saw the play by Dorothy and Dubose Heyward called Porgy written 1925. Loosely based on Characters in Dubose's own home town of Charleston. It gave Gershwin the idea for a Afro-American opera Porgy and Bess, completed 1935.He thought it was his destiny to come across the book.
To get the proper feel for the story, he spent the summer of 1934 on Rally Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. He absorbed the music of Gullah Afro-Americans. He captured the essence of Chrleston's street- cries, rhythms of Afro-American at work, church and play. Gershwin himself said " that he thought the music of Porgy and Bess so wonderful, that he could not believe he had written it." He put his whole being into this opera. His aim was to create a work that would appeal to a wide audience, beyond the elite circle of classical music lovers. For example, the greatest living composer, American Philiip Glass, attracts an audience to his opera's that have never been to a opera house. Kurt Weill wrote his opera's with ideas like Gershwin.
However, problems arose with the score. There was a private concert performance in Carnegie Hall, followed by a try out run in Boston. The performance had lasted four hours, but was held in high esteem. But then cuts and alterations were made to shorten the playing time, tighten the drama and ease the singers burden; but the impact of the overall form was lost for the New York opening. The Broadway performance was held 10th October 1935. Although 124 performances took place, which by Broadway terms was not a success, but by operatic terms extraordinary. The investors lost their money. Also, there was not enough black opera singers, so night club singers were recruited. There is a recording of the orchestra and Chorus from that ill-fated 1935 performance, with Tibbett and Jepson, supervised by George Gershwin, Nimbus records. From Broadway to Hollywood. In those days recordings were not made of musicals, so the original singers were not used. Admittedly it looks racist. But Gershwin so admired Tibbett that he chose a singer who sounded like the baritone for the part of Porgy. In 1941 Porgy and Bess won its first commercial success when played as a drama of separate numbers linked with spoken dialogue. There were more cuts. The opera did a tour of Europe, and even played at La Scala, Milan. But in 1976 the complete score was given by the Houston Grand Opera and was considered a great success. This latest Bluray Porgy and Bess is as complete as it will ever get.
More than any other composer Gershwin brought artistic respectablity to American popular music. Composers such as Ravel, Krenek, Weill, Lambert, Walton, Copland and Gould and others emulated him, and readily conceded the debt they owed him. There is a Bluray, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Weill and Brecht, in English.Inspired by America. Also, Phillip Glass's The Perfect American on Bluray; see my reviews.
REFERENCES: Batta,A. Opera. 2005. Konemann. Ewen, D. The World of 20th Century Music. 1968. Prentice-Hall. Gockley, D. Porgy and Bess. 2013. San Francisco opera. Guinn, J & Stone, L. The St James Opera Encyclopedia. 1997. Visible Ink. Holden, A. The Penguin Opera. Guide.1995. Viking. Sadie, S. The Grove book of opera. 2009. Oxford University Press.