Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin, Libretto by George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Angel Blue and Eric Owens Credit: Ken Howard
The Cast of Porgy and Bess Credit: Ken Howard
Ryan Speedo Green, Alfred Walker, Eric Owens, Errin Duane Brooks, Angel Blue, Reginald Smith, Jr., and Chauncey Packer Credit: Ken Howard

When George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was first performed in 1935, the music and drama critics were divided about its merits, unable to decide whether they were watching a musical or an opera.

Gershwin had turned down the offer of The Metropolitan Opera New York to stage it because he had wanted a longer run than The Met could give. It ran for 124 performances, an amazing feat for an opera, but not good enough for a Broadway musical. The production was a commercial failure. Today, the opera is recognized as an American grand opera classic and has been produced in opera houses all over the world.

Porgy and Bess returned to the Met stage for the first time in 30 years on February 1, 2020 in this production by James Robinson. The conductor was David Robertson and Eric Owens and Angel Blue played the leading roles.

The story is based on Dubose Heyward’s best-selling novel Porgy. Gershwin, who had wanted to turn the novel into an opera ever since it had been published in 1926, drew his inspiration for the score from jazz, blues, spirituals, street cries and classical music.

The production captures the life of a black community in Catfish Row, a crumbling tenement mansion on the waterfront in Charlton, South Carolina. Will any of these God-fearing people ever anchor in "The Promised Land" they sing so rousingly about?

The police come out of the story very badly. In view of the demonstrations going on in various US cities at this very moment against police brutality, a revival of Porgy and Bess seems even more opportune.

The success of the opera lies not only in its vigorous and compassionate score, superbly played by the orchestra, but also in its powerful storyline and vivid characters, superbly sung by singers who can act.

Eric Owens is the crippled, humane, selfless Porgy (“I Got Plenty o Nuttin’”). Angel Blue is Bess who gives him and herself a new life. Their duet (“You is My Woman") is one of the high spots. Can Porgy save Bess from the clutches of Crow, her brutal lover, and from Sportin' Life, her snake-like drug-dealer, or will she be doomed to a life of prostitution in New York?

Alfred Walker is the murderous Crown. He and Bess have the most dramatic and involving scene in the whole opera. Frederick Ballentine is Sportin’ Life, the cynical, shameless dope-peddler, who has one of the most famous songs ("It Ain't Necessarily So”), which is pure Broadway musical.

There is fine singing by Golda Schultz as Clara, who sings “Summertime”, from Leah Hawkins who sells strawberries and from Chauncey Packer who sells crabs. The choral work during the wake and the storm is excellent.

Latoria Moore as the impoverished Serena mourns the death of her murdered husband (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and stops the show. Serena cannot afford a funeral and knows that if the dead body is not buried within 24 hours it will be taken to medical school for the students to cut up..

Porgy and Bess remains one of the most popular operas of the 20th century. You cannot help but wonder what George Gershwin (1898–1937) would have gone on to write had he not died at the early age of 38.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch