London Porgy

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lennygoran
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Joined: Tue Mar 27, 2007 9:28 pm
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London Porgy

Post by lennygoran » Mon Oct 29, 2018 5:47 am

I hope to see this when it gets to the Met. Regards, Len

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Review: A Vital and Sweeping ‘Porgy and Bess’ Debuts in London

By Anthony Tommasini

Oct. 28, 2018

LONDON — It’s all too easy for the characters of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” to come across as caricatures, though Gershwin worked hard to avoid that trap. In a 1935 article for The New York Times shortly after “Porgy and Bess” opened on Broadway, he wrote that in depicting the story of poor black people living in waterfront tenements in Charleston, S.C., he adapted his method as a composer to “utilize” the drama, humor, superstition, religious fervor, dancing and “irrepressible high spirits of the race.” In order for a production not to seem steeped in stereotypes, the performances must reflect the profound respect that Gershwin and his libretto collaborators, Ira Gershwin, his brother, and DuBose Heyward, brought to this great but difficult-to-realize folk opera, as they called it.

Emotional depth and belief in the characters run through the English National Opera’s first-ever production of “Porgy and Bess,” which opened here earlier this month, directed by James Robinson. Hewing to the request of the Gershwin estate to cast the opera with black singers, this production features the stalwart baritone Eric Greene as the disabled, utterly decent beggar Porgy, and the richly expressive soprano Nicole Cabell as Bess, a glamorous but troubled woman who struggles to break free of an abusive relationship with Crown, a cocky stevedore, fiercely performed by the youthful baritone Nmon Ford. Perhaps best of all is the impassioned, radiant soprano Latonia Moore as Serena. Even when wailing with grief over the pointless killing of her husband (“My Man’s Gone Now”), she shows the tragic grandeur of this powerful character. (Ms. Moore sang “Aida” to acclaim with the company last year.)

The English National recruited an impressive ensemble of 40 singers especially for this production from Britain, America, South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere, performers who not only sing splendidly but also act and dance dynamically. During Gershwin’s ensemble scenes, the various choristers project their own individualized characters. Next month, they will join the company’s full-time chorus for a special staged performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.”

This “Porgy and Bess,” a joint production with the Metropolitan Opera and the Dutch National Opera, is coming to the Met next season. But, of necessity, I can only give an incomplete report on the staging.

Before the curtain went up on Friday’s performance at the London Coliseum, it was announced that a glitch had developed during the afternoon in the stage’s revolving mechanism. The company decided to forge on with a “reduced” version of the production. Certain ensemble scenes, notably a church picnic on Kittiwah Island, had to be played in the forestage area without the intended scenic backing. Perhaps this limitation actually inspired everyone. During that scene, cast members and choristers cut loose as they executed some gyrating dance movements and sang Gershwin’s music with full-bodied sound and crispness.

I can report on the general look and atmosphere of the production. The tenements where the residents of Catfish Row live are starkly suggested (by the set designer Michael Yeargan) with isolated wood beams that frame two tiers of interconnected rooms and spaces. With endearing costumes by Catherine Zuber that are true to the opera’s 1920s setting, the tenement dwellers mostly wear worn house dresses or work clothes, all in shades of russet and brown.

Heyward originally wrote this story as a novel, which he and Dorothy Heyward, his wife, adapted into a successful play, which became the basis for the libretto. DuBose Heyward wrote all lines for recitative setting (which Gershwin does skillfully) and many song lyrics (including “Summertime”), while Ira Gershwin wrote lyrics for the songs in a Broadway vein, like the wonderful “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Some people find it awkward today to hear recitative and ensembles with lines like “Roll dem bones/Oh, my brudder,” which the men sing as they play a game of craps. But in the way this committed cast conveys the text, the words seem less like stilted slang than a regional dialect with an everyday elegance.

In scene after scene, Mr. Robinson gets the balance right in showing both the effects of oppression on this community and the defiant heartiness of its members. These are mostly God-fearing people who sincerely believe that Maria (the formidable Tichina Vaughn), the keeper of a cookshop and the town matriarch, can ward off illness through her prayer. Yet there are few fundamentalists among them. When the aptly named Sporting Life, a dope peddler (the vibrant Frederick Ballentine), debunks a literal reading of the Bible in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” even the churchgoers who find him objectionable laugh, carry on and sing along. After all, this staging suggests, who could actually believe that Methuselah lived more than 900 years?


The tragic elements of the work are played straight and grimly. Ms. Cabell’s Bess has some raw attraction to Crown, but also an addiction to the “happy dust” only he can supply. Her problem could not have seemed more current, given the opioid crisis affecting the United States. The opera is a portrait of a deeply patriarchal culture: Even the basically good men boss their wives around. In this #MeToo moment, Crown’s physical bullying of Bess is chilling. Porgy’s gentleness and sympathy, beautifully rendered by Mr. Greene, draw Bess to him for Gershwin’s soaring love duets. At least for a while, he saves her.

Gershwin spent a summer with Heyward, a Charleston native, living in that area, exploring the music and culture of its black residents. But he made a point, as he wrote in his Times article, of composing his own folk music and spirituals for his score. He didn’t want to borrow material. And he wanted the music “to be all of one piece.”

The job of making it sound that way finally fell to the conductor here, the excellent John Wilson, who led a performance that had sweep, shape and vitality, as well as rarer qualities: precision and restraint. The technical glitches that night were all in the staging, not in the pit.



https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/arts ... ctionfront

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