Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Lush Porgy and Bess at 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, he was rivaled only by Israel Isidore Baline, whom Gershovitz, by then known as George Gershwin, would call "the greatest songwriter who ever lived.") But unlike Irving Berlin, who worked alone, Gershwin was a musical collaborator when it came to songs. His older brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for his songs and Broadway shows. The Gershwins' only opera, "Porgy and Bess," currently at Seattle Opera, was based on a play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.

Porgy and Bess.jpgThe 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 75 years ago, with leading African-American actors and singers complaining 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, but as an opera its power is undeniable. The score has bottomless chromatic depth and complexity; 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? 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.

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?

Above: Gordon Hawkins as Porgy, Lisa Daltirus as Bess. Seattle Opera photo by Elise Bakketun

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 (by the estimable Gordon Hawkins) with more eloquence. It comes as an almost offhand soliloquy, the second number at the beginning of the second act. (Were "Porgy" a 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 nobility 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 colorfully costumed denizens of Catfish Row get good dance numbers, and the secondary roles are handled with a high level of expertise.

Mary Elizabeth Willians 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 (well played by a very fit Michael Redding). It's a twist on "Old Man River" (from Showboat, 1925) that you might call Old Man River Sorrow.

Jermaine Smith makes Sportin Life a nasty snake with a redeeming smile; Gwendolyn Brown plays Mariah as Big Mamma, but in a good way; Angel Blue as Clara (who sings "Summertime" at the opening curtain) and Donovan Singletary as her huband Jake are particularly appealing young parents.

Porgy is an exhausting role, and Hawkins has been performing it for a quarter century. Ironically, he became an opera singer only after he washed out of professional baseball. A regular performer in Seattle for the past 20 years (Rigoletto, Macbeth, Tonio, Count di Luna, Gemont, etc.), Hawkins has 150 performances of Porgy on three continents under his belt, giving it everything he's got and often literally whispering his last lines (in "Lawd, I'm On My Way").

Seattle is fortunate that General Director Speight Jenkins's casting over his tenure has been resolutely color-blind. 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, a cast of African-American actors refused to perform the play during the Depression; it was envisioned as a Works Progress Administration production but 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."

Daltirus, whose steely Tosca at McCaw Hall in 2008 sent chills up my spine, has two lovely duets with Porgy but needs only four lines of Summertime (reprised in the opera's second half) to melt the hearts of the audience.

In the pit for this run is John DeMain, who has conducted more performances of Porgy than anyone alive. Far from running on auto-pilot, DeMain infused the opening night performance with verve and wit, from the overture's opening notes (a rocket that takes us to another world) to the rich, complex, hyperkinetic orchestrations that don't stop until Porgy hobbles off into the sunset, three and a half hours later.

Finally, the New York Times reports this weekend that there will be a new musical version of "Porgy and Bess" (a "commercial-minded reconception") opening on Broadway in December, starring Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald.

Seattle Opera presents "Porgy and Bess" through August 20 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer Street, Seattle. Tickets cost $25 to $241 and are available by phone (206-389-7676), at the box office (1020 John St., Seattle), or online