Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
has been ‘lucky’ in terms of audio recordings: I got to know it properly through Sir Simon Rattle’s very fine EMI recording, which followed a run of acclaimed performances at Glyndebourne. There was also a Decca recording led by Lorin Maazel and the conductor of this present performance, John DeMain, was responsible for an RCA recording with his Houston Grand Opera company: I’ve never had the chance to hear either of those recordings though I’ve read good things about them. However, the work has not fared so well on DVD and the only version of which I’m aware is a studio-made performance onto which the Rattle audio recording was dubbed with results that have been widely criticised as less than fully satisfactory.
Into the breach steps this new San Francisco Opera version and, frankly, I suspect it would sweep the board even if it faced far greater competition. It was recorded live at performances given at San Francisco Opera in June 2009. One of those performances, on 24 June, was reviewed
by Harvey Steiman for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. The score isn’t quite presented complete: there are some cuts, the most obvious of which is the Jasbo Brown piano episode immediately after the orchestral introduction; instead the production moves seamlessly into ‘Summertime’, sung fervently by Angel Blue. I must admit that any instances of surgery to the score didn’t really trouble me at all, and perhaps that in itself is a tribute to the sweep and energy of the performance. The other thing to point out is that the opera’s three acts have been rearranged into two: the break comes after Crown has reclaimed Bess on Kittiwah Island.
There isn’t a weak link in the cast with even the smaller roles sung and acted marvellously – for instance, the cameo role of the Crab Man is filled by a terrific tenor, Ashley Faatoailia. All the main characters are superbly done. Lester Lynch is a fearsome presence as the malevolent bully, Crown while Chauncey Packer portrays Sportin’ Life as the flamboyant chancer that he is – Packer’s ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ is funny and mocking while ‘There’s a boat that’s leavin’ soon for New York’ is full of cynical insinuation and manipulation..
Karen Slack is a wonderful Serena. In the wake scene for Robbins her searing grief is very affecting. Best of all is the Gospel fervour she brings to ‘Doctor Jesus’ at the start of what is Act II in this production. I also enjoyed Eric Greene’s portrayal of Jake – ‘A woman is a sometime thing’ is just great – and I was moved by Angel Blue’s portrayal of his wife, Clara. Incidentally, at the height of the hurricane scene Clara’s vain and doomed attempt to rescue Jake is most imaginatively depicted. Laquita Mitchell is wonderfully convincing as Bess, first appearing as the tipsy, tarty ‘lady’ on Crown’s arm, her vivid orange dress matching her hair colour. Then she finds stability and happiness briefly with Porgy and is genuinely moving in the way she depicts how she’s torn between fear – and need – of Crown and her yearning for the simple life with Porgy. Finally, though, Sportin’ Life’s happy dust and the allure of the bright lights of New York turn her head.
Dominating the whole production is the Porgy of Eric Owens. He’s a big man in every sense and his voice fits the part like a glove. He takes centre stage right from the moment he first limps on and the opera revolves around him. He is completely convincing in the way that he acts the part and his singing is superb. The rapturous duet with Bess, ‘Bess, you is my woman now’, is a true highlight of the show, as it should be. Towards the end of the opera his desperation and anguish when he comes back from his brief spell in jail and finds Bess gone is very moving and then ‘O Lord, I’m on my way’ is surprisingly subdued – and feels just right. This Porgy shows resolution at the end, though we all know that his task in trying to get to New York, let alone to find Bess, is well-nigh impossible. This is a Porgy who, throughout the opera, truly engages our sympathies.
It’s right that bouquets should be handed out to all the principals but arguably the real heroes and heroines of this production are the chorus. They are truly superb and they are directed quite magnificently. The singing is impeccable and often really fervent – sample the revivalist fervour of the scene over Robbins’ body or the upbeat ‘O, I can’t sit down’ which teems with vitality. The scene where the community is sheltering from the hurricane is shattering, the chorus completely believable. And it’s not just their singing: the way they move is marvellous too. The choreography is spot-on and the way in which the chorus is directed ensures that their hugely important role in the proceedings makes a terrific impact.
All aspects of the theatrical side of the production are expertly handled. The large sets are simple and flexible and are atmospherically lit at all times. The production is updated to the 1950s: I’m not quite sure why but this decision is in no way detrimental to the opera. Best of all, the production is blessedly free from directorial conceits. Francesca Zambello has clearly thought deeply about the opera but having done so she has taken the decision to let it speak for itself rather than seeking to impose any sort of weird and wonderful director’s theories upon it. The production is direct, clear – and masterful. The direction of the production for the screen by Frank Zamacona is just as successful. The camera work is expert, focussing the viewer’s attention at the right place at the right time and also giving us a compelling view of the production as a whole.
Finally, everything is right in the pit. I suspect that John DeMain may have been invited to conduct this performance because the General Director of San Francisco Opera, David Gockley, spend over three decades in a similar role at Houston Grand Opera, during which time DeMain served as Musical Director for some 18 seasons. Gockley chose his conductor for this production very wisely. DeMain has long experience of conducting this opera. My goodness, it shows. He gets razor-sharp, idiomatic playing from the orchestra and the coordination between pit and stage is evidently flawless. The performance is zesty and crackles with energy. It also has huge romantic sweep and ardour. DeMain, Zambello and the cast understand that this is a big opera in the great tradition and they play it as such.
The Blu-Ray disc gives an excellent, crisp and vibrantly colourful picture and the sound is excellent. I was gripped and moved by this performance and I urge you to see it. My colleague Robert J Farr made this a Recording of the Month
a few weeks ago. I can only second his enthusiasm. Bravo, San Francisco.
Previous review (DVD): Robert
(an April Recording of the Month)