The Porgy and Bess experience

Even if you love the music of George and Ira Gershwin, as I do, you are highly unlikely ever to have seen a faithful production of Porgy and Bess. Productions of the opera are few and far between; they become events. I was therefore excited to attend a showing of the Metropolitan Opera’s Porgy and Bess at a local theater participating in Fathom Events programming this past Wednesday. It’s the first time I have ever seen Porgy and Bess.

The show was broadcast live around the world in the Fathom Events series this past Saturday. Recordings of Saturday’s show played in theaters on Wednesday and play again tomorrow in the same venues. I want to bring it to your attention in case you have any interest in catching it.

American popular music has been deeply affected by Porgy and Bess. The opera essentially opens with “Summertime,” for example. Think Ella Fitzgerald. Think Sarah Vaughan. Think Sam Cooke. Think Nina Simone. Think Miles Davis. Think Billy Stewart and Janis Joplin! It’s just one of many familiar songs from the opera. We could devote an entire Sunday Morning Coming Down post to that one song. The opera’s music is indestructible.

This production of Porgy and Bess opened the Met’s 2019-2020 season this past September. New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini reviewed it in “A Splendid ‘Porgy and Bess’ Opens the Met Opera Season.” Tomassini wrung his hands over the opera’s inherent challenges to the dictates of political correctness before surrendering to the production: “All these questions are valid. But they were pushed aside for me in the moment when hearing Gershwin’s masterpiece on Monday, especially in a performance so authoritative and gripping.”

Tommasini’s handwringing was insufficient to the day. The Times published Tommasini’s review along with Michael Cooper’s retrospective “The Complex History and Uneasy Present of ‘Porgy and Bess.’” Cooper’s history is informative. The Times’s handwringing made me wonder, however, how long the opera will continue to be mounted. My advice is to seize the day.

Jay Nordlinger reviewed the Met’s production this past November in his monthly New Criterion New York Chronicle column. Jay rendered his gloriously unconflicted judgment on the production: “I am left to marvel at Gershwin, the Brooklyn Jew, the son of immigrants, who wrote The Great American Opera, and a ‘black’ masterpiece. How did he do it? Talent, rising to genius.”

Amen, brother.

The Met’s audience also took to the show with Nordlinger’s unconflicted pleasure. The production was wildly successful. Indeed, the success of the show last year prompted the Met to bring it back this month and broadcast it live around the world last weekend. Cooper tells that story as well in “‘Porgy and Bess,’ a Hit for the Met Opera, Gets an Encore.” Subhead: “Adding three performances, the company is extending an opera’s run for the first time in its modern history.”

Cooper observes that “audiences can’t seem to get enough of” the production: “It has become a runaway hit at a time when the Met has struggled with declining attendance. Starring Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles, one performance this fall broke a Met record, officials said: Because the company increases prices as demand rises, the performance took in 113 percent of its anticipated box office revenue.”

Cooper adds this note on the live broadcast of this past Saturday’s show: “Porgy and Bess is shaping up to be a cinema hit, too. The Met said that it had already sold 67,000 tickets to the upcoming Live in HD simulcast of the production to cinemas around the world, on Feb. 1, and that it plans to add encore screenings in more theaters than usual.” As I say, the final encore plays tomorrow wherever Fathom Events are shown. In the Twin Cities, it is playing around town in three theaters.

I had never attended an opera before the show this past Wednesday night. The form is well over my head. It’s not my bag. I will limit myself here to these notes:

• This past Saturday’s show was another sold-out affair at the Met. The encore showings let the camera linger on the audience for ten minutes before the show begins. I repeat: you are there. You can feel the audience’s anticipation.

• The high definition video is incredible. You are there in the best seat in the house.

• The sound is excellent.

• The Fathom Events recording comes with subtitles that are unobtrusive and invaluable.

• Thank God (or the Gershwin estate) that there is no colorblind casting of the production.

• Eric Owens (Porgy) and Angel Blue (Bess) are magnificent, as are the other featured members of the cast.

• Seeing the duet of Porgy and Bess singing “Bess You Is My Woman” in its original context is riveting. I know the song well enough to be able to sing along with either part (if I could sing!), but the emotional impact caught me by surprise. Wow.

• The Met’s production is spectacular. It is a credit to everyone involved. James Robinson was the director. David Robertson was the conductor. Camille A. Brown was the choreographer.

• Seeing this production is an experience.

• Against the odds, Porgy and Bess lives.

The Met posted brief video excerpts of the production from the final dress rehearsal this past September. Without an audience in attendance, something is lacking. The excerpts nevertheless give you a good idea of the nature of the production.

“Summertime”: Golda Schultz sings Clara’s Act I aria.

“My Man’s Gone Now”: Latonia Moore sings Serena’s Act I aria.

“Bess You Is My Woman”: Eric Owens and Angel Blue sing the Act I duet.

“Leavin’ For the Promise’ Land”: A scene from the final dress rehearsal, with choreography by Camille A. Brown.

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