An alternative to the New York Times’ review of PORGY AND BESS at the Tanglewood Festival.
By Susan Miron.
Given that a much-publicized, new version of the opera Porgy and Bess is being staged at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, reportedly with a new backstory for Bess and even a happy ending, it was good, even instructive, to see the original in a superb concert version via the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood over the weekend. If nothing else, the staging proves that the unvarnished Porgy and Bess works marvelously well.
Porgy and Bess arose from a collaboration between composer George Gershwin and librettists Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. George Gershwin read DuBose Hayward’s novel Porgy in 1926. In 1927, Hayward and his wife turned the novel into a play with spirituals that ran on Broadway for 367 performances. In 1933, Gershwin signed a contract with the Theatre Guild in New York and began working on an expanded version. The original 1935 production has been restored by conductor John Mauceri, who, in 2006, used his version (which includes cuts the Gershwins made for the New York premiere after an earlier Boston try-out) as the basis for concert performances and a recording. It is this version, with small additional cuts, that the Boston Symphony Orchestra used on Friday night.
Billed as an “American folk-opera,” Porgy and Bess had its world premiere on September 30, 1935 at Boston’s Colonial Theater, where it played for one week. Mixed audience and critical reception has plagued the then four-hour opera for decades. Countless reworkings have followed. Porgy and Bess has accumlated a double history—as a frequently performed (and much tinkered with) stage work and as an indispensable source for jazz and popular artists. It remains America’s most popular opera to date and one of the most internationally popular of all time. “Summertime,” its best-loved song, has been performed as a ballad, a blues, a lullaby, inspiring versions in a wide variety of styles—jazz, folk, rhythm and blues, country rock, and world pop. Major saxophonists—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz—have embraced this music as their own. Many of the opera’s other songs have been hits in a variety of musical genres.
The Boston Symphony’s Porgy and Bess reminded one of why Gershwin felt it was a “folk-opera.” “Its people naturally would sing folk music,” he wrote. “When I first began work on the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs . . . In Porgy and Bess I realized I was writing an opera for the theater and without songs it could be neither for the theater not entertaining.” The BSO production kept this idea of tuneful entertainment uppermost due in large part to the efforts of the 120 singers in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC). I have listened to the TFC for many decades, and I have never found the singers as relaxed as they were in this performance, under the direction of John Oliver. Usually somber and perfectly behaved, the chorus loosened up in its role as the ultra-hip denizens of Porgy’s Catfish Row. The singers were part gospel choir, part neighbors, harmonizing, chiming in, commenting on the action, waving their hands and arms. They were loose, limber, and lively participants in the action.
The BSO conductor, Branwell Tovey, also supplied plenty of spirit: his long, brilliant piano solo shortly after the opening rendition of “Summertime” (on a spinet without a cover) was astounding, and his second solo was no let-down.
Still, the opera’s emotional power is lessened in a concert version, in part because Porgy is a cripple with a goat and cart who ekes out a living on Catfish Row, circa 1930. In this production, he was a handsome and hunky singer—why in the world would Bess leave him? Bass-baritone Alfred Walker sang the role of Porgy beautifully; he and his blind love for Bess won the audience’s sympathy from the start. I found Bess, sung by soprano Laquita Mitchell, underwhelming; the other female leads were more impressive, especially Marquita Lister as Serena, who memorably belted out “My Man’s Gone Now.” Other standouts included Gregg Baker, who, as Crown, Bess’s first romantic interest, conveyed the mean-spirited character well while singing with aplomb. Even better was Jermaine Smith, who, as Sporting Life, a cocaine-dealer and seducer of Bess, had moves that recalled dancers Savion Glover and Michael Jackson. Smith’s renditions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” were galvanic.
From the beginning to the end of this three hour performance the Boston Symphony Orchestra—strings, winds, and brass—played with elegance and exactness. William Hudgins played the daylights out of the xylophone.