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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess - Opera in Three Acts (1935) (Abbreviated version)
Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Libretto by DuBose Heyward.
Porgy, Lawrence Winters (bar); Bess, Camilla Williams (sop); Serena, Inez Matthews (sop); Sporting Life, Avon Long (ten); Crown, Warren Coleman (bar); Clara, June McMechen (sop); Maria/Lily/Strawberry Woman, Helen Dowdy (mezzo); Jake, Eddie Matthews (bar); Mingo, William A. Glover (ten); Robbins, Irving Washington (ten); Peter, Harrison Cattenhead (ten); Frazier, J. Rosamond Johnson (bar); Annie, Sadie McGill (mezzo); Jim, George Fisher (bar); Undertaker, Hubert Dilworth (bar); Nelson/Crab Man, Ray Yeats (Tenor)
Orchestra and J. Rosamond Johnson Chorus/Lehman Engel
Recorded 5th-13th April 1951 in the Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York
Appendix. Highlights from Porgy and Bess
Risë Stevens (mezzo); Robert Merrill (bar)
The Robert Shaw Chorale. RCA Victor Orchestra/Robert Russell Bennett
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS 8.110287-88 [2CDs: 77.36+79.09]

 

Opera, folk opera or musical? All these descriptions have been used to describe Porgy and Bess. Personally, I think ones answer is largely determined by early seeing or hearing experiences. Currently that experience will likely to be of an video or sound version of the outstanding 1980s Glyndebourne production conducted by Simon Rattle and recorded by EMI. Earlier generations may well have been influenced towards the operatic view by the 1950s highlights included here as an appendix and which include Risë Stevens and Robert Merrill, star singers at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It was later recordings conducted by Lorin Maazel (Decca) and John DeMain (RCA) that really focused the issue of opera or musical. Until Rattle’s Glyndebourne performance, Maazel’s recording held foremost position with a clear view of the work as opera. Both Rattle and Maazel’s recordings had Willard White as a superbly characterised and resonant voiced Porgy. DeMain with a cast that had been a great success on Broadway and elsewhere in the U.S.A. presents the alternative view with equal success.

With the benefit of hindsight it is hard to understand the difficulty Porgy and Bess had in establishing the place it now enjoys in the repertoire although colour prejudice in America could have played a part. Premiered in 1935 to mixed reviews it ran for 124 performances; a failure by musical comedy standards. There were various revivals in the 1940s but Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother, who had helped write the lyrics, and Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records of America, sought to record a version not linked to any stage production but more clearly focused on the music and singing. The main recording on this Naxos issue was the result. Camilla Williams as Bess and Lawrence Winters as Porgy sang at the New York City Opera. Avon Long who had vaudeville background and later made a considerable career in musicals plays the role of Sporting Life, so superbly sung and portrayed by Damon Evans for Rattle. This 1951 combination of singers together with the vitality of Lehman Engel’s conducting helped to re-launch Porgy on the world. Of equal importance in this respect was the Everyman Opera Company of New York. This production featured a young Leontyne Price as a voluptuously sexy Bess and William Warfield as Porgy. Price went on to be the first fully accepted black singer at the Met and the non-pareil Aida and Leonora (in Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino) of the theatre and her generation. This production toured America and Europe to acclaim and included a visit to Cold War Russia no less. That production, like this recording, succeeded in blending the energy of musical comedy with the vocal richness of opera.

The juxtaposition on this issue of full operatic voices in the appendix, where there is transposition to suit each singer’s voice, allows comparison of the work’s evergreen tunes. But that is hardly the point. The main recording here fulfils its objective of combining the energy of musical comedy with the vocal richness of opera and is thoroughly recommendable. It is not in direct competition with either Rattle or DeMain. Its own virtues stand it in good stead compared with either view. It is also a lot cheaper and provides an affordable opportunity for those who do not know the work as well as those who have one or other of the versions referred to. It has been admirably re-mastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. With its two approaches to the work, it is excellent value albeit that the appendix (CD 2 trs 23-30) gives only a brief glimpse of the operatic view of the work. There is a brief leaflet essay and track-related synopsis.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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