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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess - opera in 3 acts (1934-5)
Libretto: DuBose Heyward; Lyrics: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Based on the play ‘Porgy’ by DuBose and Katherine K Heyward
Willard White – Porgy; Cynthia Haymon – Bess; Harolyn Blackwell - Clara; Damon Evans – Sporting Life; Bruce Hubbard – Jake; Cynthia Clarey – Serena; Marietta Simpson – Maria; Gregg Baker – Crown
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 8-19 February 1988, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 4 76836 2 [3CDs: 57.59 + 72.26 + 59.09]

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Porgy and Bess has led a troubled life. Gershwin intended his opera to open at the Metropolitan Opera House but it premiered instead at Boston’s Colonial Theatre on 30 September 1935. It then ran for 124 performances at New York’s Alvin Theatre with Gershwin insisting on an all-black cast. Even then critics debated whether Porgy and Bess was an opera. Conductor Serge Koussevitsky thought it was but critic/composer Virgil Thomson had his doubts. The controversy was exacerbated when a revised version was produced on Broadway in 1942 with the recitatives reduced to dialogue, the orchestra diminished and the cast halved. The eventual production was more in line with American musical theatre traditions.

In 1952 the operatic format was restored and with Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy and Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life, it toured Europe and made its London premiere at the Stoll Theatre on 9 October that year.

A film version with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr appeared in 1959. But the Gershwin estate objected to it and in 1974 pulled it from release. 

Racial controversy has also plagued Porgy and Bess from the beginning. Duke Ellington said that ‘the times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms’ and several members of the original cast were concerned that it would stereotype black Americans as living in poverty with an addiction to drugs while solving their problems by fighting. The American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s further fuelled the debate.

Porgy and Bess was eventually performed at the Metropolitan Opera House - fifty years after its premiere - on 6 February 1985.

But even after 71 years Porgy and Bess still hasn’t received unreserved acceptance as an opera. This 1988 EMI Great Recording of the Century version doesn’t answer that question but it is an excellent recording of what Gershwin visualised when he first read Dubose Heyward’s book. ‘If I am successful,’ he wrote, ‘it will resemble the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger.’ Like Bizet, Gershwin’s portrayal of life in Catfish Row is earthy, almost primal, and like Wagner his use of leitmotifs, abundant recitative and ‘incidental’ music evokes an atmosphere that is both dramatic and musical. 

But is it opera? Personally, I feel the jury is out on that although I tend to categorise it more as Broadway than Covent Garden or La Scala. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t got moments of sheer operatic brilliance but the ambience is suited more to theatre-with-music, the orchestration is at times ‘big-bandish’ and some of the recitative would have been more appropriate as dialogue. The gambling scene at the beginning, for example, is replete with quick and frequent dialogue set to music. It tends to slow down the drama and, anyway, it isn’t recitative as we know it from the likes of Verdi or Mozart. With them the recitative tends to precede an aria. With Gershwin it is open-ended. It starts from nowhere and you’re never quite sure when it’s going to end. Consequently there is no tension and even when seen visually - I’ve actually viewed a DVD of this same production - the scene is as ponderous as a herd of elephants tip-toeing through a field of egg-shells. 

Having said that, the first scene has one of the most magical renditions of a popular aria I’ve ever heard. It’s one of those moments when everything stands still, almost frozen. The aria emerges perceptibly from a piano playing honky-tonk in the background. I have heard Summertime sung before but Harolyn Blackwell as Clara makes it sound so different and so ethereal the notes seem to defy gravity. Similarly, but perhaps not as magically, is Cynthia Clarey as Serena singing My man’s gone now, ain’t no use a’ listenin’ for his tired footsteps climbin’ up de stairs. It’s a moment of pathos in a storyline as sordid and unsympathetic as they come. When you get a cripple, Porgy taking Bess under his protection after her ‘happy-dust’-fuelled boyfriend, Crown has killed a man in a gambling rage is it any wonder the coloured population felt aggrieved at its portrayal of how they lived?

But this album certainly deserves its reputation of being an EMI Great Recording of the Century. The singing by everyone is exemplary; Willard White gives a very poignant rendition of the agony Porgy must have felt as an outcast – his final Oh Bess, oh where’s my Bess (as well as his better known numbers like I got plenty o’ nuttin’) is as fine an aria as you’ll ever hear sung in any opera house and his bass voice is as decisive and precise as a knife slicing through butter. His duets with Cynthia Haymon’s Bess are a revelation and Haymon’s solos are equally as impressive. Damon Evans’ tenor voice as Sporting Life holds its own in admirable company and one must sympathise with him for inclining towards the jazz-style of singing that perhaps Gershwin advocated for his character. It is this style of singing and the choral finale that tends to sway me towards thinking this is more a musical than an opera. 

The chorus is brilliant, the vividness of the orchestral interludes and the atmospheric music - the hurricane scene is a good example – are all admirably controlled by Sir Simon Rattle. You can tell he started life as a percussionist; his bursts of music are attacked with a gleeful, almost savage, intensity. 

Randolph Magri-Overend 



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