Porgy & Bess
I first saw Porgy & Bess on stage at the Savoy in London in 2006.
I though it OK but not exceptional. It was, like this version done in an operatic manner.
The DVD, with sub titles, makes it much easier to follow the story properly. I think without the sub titles it would be much less clear - It is quite amusing how the black African American dialect is portrayed on those titles, but is easily followed.
Firstly, I have to say that this story is overly long IMHO, at over 3 hours. I found myself struggling at times to stay in there! The DVD has the advantage of many different sets, and of course the close ups which are of very limited nature on a stage. So it definitely scores on that count.
The story is a particularly sad one and the ending is a real tear-jerker which will leave a lump in your throat. There are indeed several very poignant scenes among this lengthy plot. The funeral scene is particularly endearing.
Gershwin is a favourite of mine but this dvd version of ‘Summertime’ never gets near to many of the fine versions available. The music I found a little under-whelming in places.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this again and would definitely recommend it as one of the great historic ‘black’ stage productions to watch, along with the likes of Showboat, & Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
on 8 January 2014
I had an old video tape of this production which I loved, so I decided to buy the DVD version. It shows its age, with an aspect ratio of 4:3 and video quality which is nothing special, but the sound is good and the performance brilliant, with only the odd hint that it is actually mimed.
on 6 January 2008
If you want to get to know the Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess', this is a brilliant version to watch.
Willard White is just incredible, and of course Gershwin's music throughout is just sublime. Seeing 'Summertime' (you know the one) in the context of the show sheds a completely different light on it.
The only annoyance was the poor miming (mouths and voices out of synch), and for me it was a big annoyance. But I still found myself moved from time to time.
on 6 January 2013
The story is entirely enclosed in a black community that lives on the coast of South Carolina next to a fishing harbour. They are fishermen and they till some land for cotton. They live in some kind of a fort that is closed by a metal and monumental gate and that is entirely turned inward onto its own courtyard. The only outside people are the police that comes when a crime is discovered and that is only to make a token arrest since they never get any testimony about who committed the crime. There will be two murders in the "fort". The other visitors are peddlers. The strawberry lady, the honey man or the crab man do not represent a danger in any way. But the drug peddler known as Sportin' Life is another can of worms. He is dangerous and his role will be dramatic in the story.
The story is simple. A woman who is more or less an easy woman is the unmarried woman of a violent man. They are Bess and Crown. She provides her man with the money he needs to buy alcohol and drugs and to gamble. She is entirely mesmerized and dominated by the drug, Happy Dust, and her man. The drama starts with Crown killing another man, Robbins. He runs. The cops want to arrest some bystander, Peter, but he will be eventually released after some time in prison. The main witness that testifies no one has seen anything is a cripple and beggar, Porgy. He appears as being the one who defends the waterproof character of the community. Do not deal with the white police. He is also the one who is going to take care of Bess, left behind by Crown who is on the run.
The rest is the story of the fight of this woman between two men, Porgy and Crown, a battle that is lost from the very start but not by the fault of anyone in the community but because of the outside "invaders" the police and the drug peddler are.
The drug peddler has it right when he says that two men for one woman always end up with one man dead and the other in prison, and the woman having no one at all. Porgy kills Crown, is arrested with no testimony against him but under the pretext that he is supposed to identify Crown's dead body, which he refuses to do, even when in front of the body. He is sent to prison for contempt of court. Hence Bess ends up alone, an easy prey to Sportin' Life who manages her so that she goes back to drugs and then goes away with him to New York. When Porgy comes back with presents for everyone, since he played dice in prison and made a little fortune, the community is friendly with him but does not want to tell him where Bess is. He finally gets it out of them and he decides to drop his two crutches and go to New York after Bess.
That kind of rivalry between the protector of an easy woman and someone who falls in love with her is not so uncommon, even in the opera world. The new element is the fact that the man ho falls in love with the woman is a cripple and the protector turns criminal. The rivalry between two men for one woman is not uncommon in all spheres of literature and music and the fact that one kills the other is banal, except that here it is the cripple who kills the super strong and powerful protector. The end is purely opportunistic. The woman is totally unable to live without the authority of a man: she is helpless without a man and she finds herself alone. She cannot choose the community as a substitute or at least she cannot resist the suggestion from a third man, the drug peddler who proposes her to go back to easy life in the big city up north.
But this opera is a lot more interesting than this dramatic love affair and this surprisingly effective love quartet, one woman and three men. As long as the black community lives closed up on itself it can survive more or less decently though poor but proud of what they can make on the very edge of the white society outside, the society of the buckras. When you get out of this cocoon, you run all kinds of dangers: fishermen are killed by hurricanes when they go fishing. Women are exploited into selling themselves to anyone, into drug addiction and even slavery of some kind when they get out and follow a man out of their community. And it is from outside that the drug peddler comes to bring into the community what may destroy that community. And yet this community is totally pervaded by gambling with dice, alcoholism with whisky and moonshine alcohol, and even common brutality among the members. What saves them is their solidarity in front of the outside white society. They even have a fringe of black exploiters like the undertaker, the divorce dealer, the drug peddler and some others that ransom their own black community for any mostly illegal reason.
Solidarity cannot do anything against that kind of easy exploitation.
The opera was composed in 1935 and represented a revolution in itself. The action concerned a black community that was depicted as containing normal human feelings and passions and that was under the perversion imposed onto them by the white society outside that both victimized the community with systematic suspicion and made that community close up onto itself into some autarchic functioning that made them accept to be exploited by some black crooks and accept the violence of some of their members even when it became criminal. In other words their minds are totally colonized, under the domination from an outside, surrounding and seen and felt as superior group that dominates them. In 1935 there was yet no way out of this colonized situation except hard work to make a better living in that system but that did not change it, no matter whether they were fishing or growing cotton. Their lot was to be fishermen or sharecroppers. We were at the time still a long way from the education and then civil rights transformation, the main two ways for these communities to open up on the world, for the individuals in these communities to find their way up in society by conquering an equal, or at least as equal as possible position in the surrounding white society. But this opera showed that the situation was becoming highly explosive inside and in the relations with the outside world. It could not last very long indeed because presents, beautiful dresses, new hats were wanted and there would come a time when these people would say: we want them and they will finally do what they can to get them without selling their bodies, drugs or fake divorces, not to speak of coffins and funerals.
And yet the composer is not black which means the Blacks are not in 1935, though they are some of the greatest musicians in America already at the time, accepted on Broadway yet. It will take a long time before the Blacks are accepted as equal in showbiz as composers, authors and artists. But this quasi-all-black opera is a very important precursor of "Guess who's coming to dinner" that was only to come out in 1967, thirty two years and one World War later.
But the music is surprisingly modern and avant-garde for its time and even today. It is both melodious with some sentences coming back both with words and notes, but also disruptive of standard harmony and melody, working on slight variations from major to minor tones, and working tremendously on half tones and other intervals that are often taken downward when we expect upward movements or vice versa. It is not jazz but it integrates some of the innovations of jazz in the music and particularly the polyrhythmic aspect of African and African-American music by playing on the chorus as opposed to the leading voice, or on some more distant rhythm that has its autonomy behind the voice, on on gospel technique of a chorus calling for attention every so often in the rhetoric of some songs and introducing a different tempo articulated on the main tempo. Hallelujah! We are like entering a musical forest in which each tree is revealing the whole forest and all the other trees of it.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on 7 April 2010
This is the only production that his available to the best of my knowledge on DVD.
Pity it had to be made as a film rather than a stage production. In absence of any other worthwhile production, this should get accolades for just being there. No doubt, the singing and the music are excellent. But for that, I would have preferred an audio CD.
Having bought it though, I am quite happy with it and I guess most people will also feel the same.... till another one comes along; preferably a stage production in widescreen and HD. I think Gershwin deserves that...