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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/ DVD rec. 1992, Shepperton Studios,
 EMI CLASSICS   50999 2 34430 2 [3 CDs: 57.59 + 72.26 + 59.09; DVD: 184:00]
Experience Classicsonline


There’s little doubt that the Rattle Porgy and Bess has become something of a modern classic. Almost as soon as it was released there was pretty unanimous praise from critics and it was a best-seller for EMI. As far as I can tell, this ‘Special 20th Anniversary Edition’ is a straight packaging together of the 3 CD set and the single DVD, so another bit of shameless re-selling of a familiar and widely available product, though I suppose it makes reasonable financial sense to have them both if you don’t already own this version of the opera.

Notice I say opera, as I’m firmly in the camp that believes this very much fits the genre and, as a through-composed dramatic theatre piece, is every bit as viable as anything from Puccini or Verdi. Just because it utilises spirituals, jazz, popular tunes etc. matters not a jot. This is real verismo opera, dramatic and truthful, and Gershwin’s avowed aim was to create ‘something that is a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger’, a task he succeeded in beyond all expectation.

This dramatic impact is hammered home forcefully in this Rattle version. From the incredibly swift opening prelude – taken at a speed which nearly gets the better of the excellent LPO – to the powerfully moving final moments, Rattle’s grip on this Wagnerian-length work never lets up. The frisson and atmosphere created by the Glyndebourne chorus and soloists after such a successful theatrical run is palpable, and the many hit tunes and set pieces that come thick and fast are irresistibly performed. The voices simply sound right, from Harolyn Blackwell’s radiant ‘Summertime’, though Damon Evans’s sharply characterised Sportin’ Life to the crowning glory of Willard White’s Porgy, this is as good as it gets. Mind you, I have a soft spot for White’s earlier outing with Maazel and his razor-sharp Clevelanders from 1976 (Decca), when his voice was even younger and firmer. That set sounds just as convincing and is superbly recorded, but it’s fair to say that overall Rattle and Glyndebourne have the edge.

The DVD has also been highly praised; it’s full of heightened realism of the sort Trevor Nunn revels in, and the staging on the huge lot at Shepperton ensures we miss nothing, no matter how subtle. I did hanker after the actual Glyndebourne theatre production, but will concede that for sheer depth of detail and emotional involvement at close quarters, this is a good bet for the library. Unfortunately, even when the cast are miming to their own soundtrack, as here, this suffers the fate of many opera ‘films’ in poor lip syncing. It’s nowhere as bad as others I’ve come across, such as the Solti Eugene Onegin, but it’s still slightly off-putting in places, Willard White often being an offender. Neither is the sound as full and sharp as the CDs which sent me back to the audio-only experience. It’s a pity, as many key moments are emotionally gripping, and there’s a terrific storm sequence. There are no extras, which is another shame, but the whole 3 hours-plus does get squeezed on to one disc, something other companies could note.

So, if you’ve kept reading about this set and never taken the plunge, I guess this presentation package is your chance, though keep the DVD provisos in mind.
Tony Haywood


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