Seattle Opera's latest "Porgy" has plenty of nuttin

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Porgy & Bess 2018.jpg

Angel Blue as Bess, Alfred Walker as Porgy. Philip Newton photo © for Seattle Opera,

Jacob Gershovitz was born in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century, the son of Russian Jews. Like Mozart, he died young; like Puccini, he wrote music that effortlessly assimilated the melodies and styles of other cultures. Like so many first-generation Americans, he was fiercely proud of the country his parents had adopted. (In that regard, Gershovitz was rivaled only by Israel Isidore Baline, whom he would call "the greatest songwriter who ever lived.") But unlike Irving Berlin, who worked alone, George Gershwin was a musical collaborator; his older brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for his songs and Broadway shows. Their only opera, "Porgy and Bess," based on a play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, opened last night at Seattle Opera.

The story of a beggar and a floozy, set in a tenement on the South Carolina coast, "Porgy" has been under fire since it was written almost 85 years ago, with leading African-American actors and singers complaining that its use of Gullah dialect and (stereotypical) black low-life characters was racist. It has a mixed record as a novel, stage play, Broadway musical, and Hollywood movie, though its power, as an opera, is undeniable. The score has bottomless chromatic depth and complexity (a three-hour Rhapsody in Black, if you will); its best-known melodies come to life with an organic inevitability. To name but a few: Summertime, A Woman is a Sometime Thing, I Got Plenty o' Nothin, Bess You Is My Woman Now, It Ain't Necessarily So.

Stereotypes? What did a Jewish piano player from Noo Yawk know about fishermen and cotton-pickers in the Deep South? For that matter, what did a Frenchman know about gypsies in a Spanish cigarette factory, or an Italian about geishas in Japan? At least Gershwin spent a summer in South Carolina assimilating the humanity beyond the stereotypes.

The opening number, a lullaby titled Summertime, was sung a decade ago by Angel Blue in a supporting role. Now she's all grown up and sings the lead. All the female roles are well sung but the male voices come across as thin and untrained. And once the little Summertime baby is hushed, the rest of first act turns into a cringe-worthy minstrel show.

There is no more anti-consumerist anthem than Porgy's "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin," as modern today as ever (with lyrics updated from the opera's Gullah dialect to slightly more standard English):

I got plenty of nothing
And nothing's plenty for me.
I got no car, got no mule, got no misery.

Folks with plenty of plenty,
They got a lock on the door
Afraid somebody's gonna rob them
While they're out making more
What for?

This is not a condescending celebration of peasant simplicity (Marie Antoinette playing Farmville) but a ringing manifesto of minimalism. I only wish it had been delivered with more eloquence. It comes as an almost offhand soliloquy toward the end of Act One. (Were "Porgy" a modern Broadway musical, it would be a first-act closer.) The poor, crippled beggar Porgy lurches across the stage on a crutch (not a goat cart), yet is never seen pleading for pennies, a man whose infirmities confer upon him not the mythic virtues of the "noble savage" but a high ground of moral decency. Trouble is, in this production, Porgy himself doesn't command the stage; he's relegated to sideline benches while the denizens of Catfish Row get Disney-esque dance numbers. Only Mary Elizabeth Williams, as Serena gives the Seattle audience the opera's best singing in her funeral lament for her husband, Robbins ("My Man's Gone Now"), murdered by Bess's no-good lover, Crown (stoically played by Lester Lynch).

Jermaine Smith makes Sportin Life a nasty snake with a redeeming smile; it's the same role he played when Seattle Opera produced Porgy in 2011, and you could say he owns the part.

This production was created by Francesca Zambello for New York's Glimmerglass festival last summer; she reshuffled some of the songs and "updated" the setting from the 1920s to the 1950s, which does nothing to enhance the story. Never a good idea. (The stage director for the Seattle production, Garnett Brice, and the choreographer, Eric Sean Fogel, deserve a wag of the finger.) In this new version of Porgy, the second act can be seen almost as a blackface version of Carmen. Porgy isn't so much a cripple as a dude with a torn ACL (his crutch keeps changing sides, not a good sign). But Alfred Walker's voice does get stronger as the night wears on. His plaintive call ,at the end of the opera, before he sets out to find Bess in New York, "Get me my crutch," isn't nearly as dramatic as the original, "Get me my goat!"


Seattle is fortunate that former General Director Speight Jenkins was resolutely colorblind in his casting. No local opera-goer bats an eye if Aida is black and Radames is white, if Macbeth is black and Lady Macbeth is white, it's all about the voices. But the license to stage Porgy and Bess comes with an inviolable condition from the Gershwin estate, which holds the copyright: all the singing parts, including the chorus, must be performed by artists of color.

Duke Ellington, who complained about "Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms" in 1935, reversed himself "Your Porgy and Bess the superbest, singing the gonest, acting the craziest, Gershwin the greatest." he telegraphed the producer of the Broadway production.

In Seattle during the Depression, a cast of African-American actors refused to perform the play, which was planned as a Works Progress Administration production; it was never performed. Grace Bumbry, who sang Bess at the Met in 1985, understood that the opera was more than a faded snapshot but a living piece of Americana. "Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there."

Gershwin himself called Porgy and Bess an American Folk Opera, yet its biggest successes have been outside the US, most notably a European tour by a South African company. "I think we've got a little jaded in the US with Porgy and Bess," Lisa Daltirus told The Times of London in 2009. But the argument over the opera's relevance is far from over. "A lot of people just think that this is a show that is lovely to listen to and happened way back when," Daltirus said. "They're not thinking that you can still find places where this is real."

John DeMain returns to the pit for this run; he has conducted more performances of Porgy than anyone alive.The overture's opening notes are a rocket that takes us to another world; the rich, complex, hyperkinetic orchestrations don't stop until Porgy hobbles off into the sunset, three hours later. Far from running on auto-pilot, DeMain seemed to struggle (often at vain) to keep the enthusiastic orchestra from overwhelming the thin-voiced singers.Less of a problem with the chorus and sopranos than the tenors and basses.

Racist stereotypes or source of pride? The debate is no less impassioned today than decades ago, even though artists of color are far more common today. Says Jermaine Smith, in a blog post, "Outside of Porgy, African Americans were not being hired" when the opera was created. "Leontyne Price got her start by playing the role of Bess. That was a catalyst for her career. This amazing voice was heard, in part, thanks to Porgy and Bess."

I'm not suggesting Seattle Opera shouldn't have mounted this new production, mind you. Just that it could have been so much better. As Clara sings in "Summertime," You going to rise up singing and take to the sky.

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on August 12, 2018 6:00 PM.

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