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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]


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 19