Operas by American composers are not in short supply and many are fine, even great, works. But it is probably going to be a long time before any opera replaces the 1935 Great American Opera that is George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This vivid portrait, brimming over with the daily lives of flesh-and-blood characters in a poor community of African–Americans in 1920s South Carolina is completely engrossing. The sheer inventiveness of the music, the energy, the tunes, the polyglot inspirations of blues, spirituals and prayers, the sexy, unexpected syncopations, the fascinating orchestration (a banjo and clarinet accompanying “I got plenty a nuttin”) would be enough, but the range of emotion Gershwin offers to his characters is staggering: the soft, loving humidity of “Summertime”; the sweet victory of “Bess, you is my woman now”; the sassy misogyny of “A woman is a sometime thing”; the cynicism of “It ain’t necessarily so”; and the glorious tragedy of “My man’s gone now” which is, hands down, the greatest threnody since Dido’s “When I am laid in earth”.

Frederick Ballentine (Sportin' Life) © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Frederick Ballentine (Sportin' Life)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

The Met’s new production, seen previously in London and the Netherlands, is directed by James Robinson, who has the characters interacting and listening to one another as if in real life – the inhabitants of Catfish Row have known each other for all of their lives and love, pray and grieve like family. Michael Yeargan’s revolving set offers many separate but interconnected living spaces on two levels; the audience has unobstructed view of them all and the close quarters more than suggest a bustling, insular community. The 21 soloists and huge chorus fill up the stage. Movement is natural and fluid. A baby is cuddled and tended to, women hang laundry. Only some dancing (Camille A. Brown, choreographer), with leaping and wild movement would seem more at home in a revival meeting.

For years Porgy was excerpted and mauled in productions, suffering huge cuts, reduced/altered orchestration, and more. In 1976, Houston Grand Opera’s Music Director, John DeMain, led a version, with sung recitatives instead of dialogue, that placed it firmly in the operatic canon (heard at Glimmerglass in 2017). The Met has opted for a new version which is certainly fine, still (happily) through-composed, but with some ghastly cuts – Jazzbo Brown’s scene-setting jazz piano riff during the overture and the Buzzard Song are two casualties. Still, there’s more than two-and-a-half hours of Gershwin to revel in.

Latonia Moore (Serena) © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Latonia Moore (Serena)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

The singing was, for the most part, sensational, with an odd exception or two. To begin, Golda Schultz’s Clara sang “Summertime” as beautifully as one might ever hear it and Ryan Speedo Green delivered “A woman is a sometime thing” with swagger. The chorus, already mightily impressive in the opening scenes, delivered “Gone, gone, gone” with great sadness, leading into Serena’s show-stopping, almost overwhelming “My man’s gone now”, with luxurious tone and heartbreaking keening, which earned Latonia Moore a raucous ovation.

Impressive was Frederick Ballantine’s Sportin’ Life, moving like the very picture of a serpent-like drug-dealer, but who unfortunately over-embellished “It ain’t necessarily so” to a point of show-offish unrecognizability. Denyce Graves, working with diminished vocal resources, was nonetheless stunning – and funny – in the Sprechstimme scolding of Sportin’ Life, “You low-lived skunk”. The vicious Crown’s “Red-headed woman” and vile interactions with Bess were just right with Albert Walker’s grand bass-baritone.

Eric Owens (Porgy) and Angel Blue (Bess) © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Eric Owens (Porgy) and Angel Blue (Bess)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Of course, at the opera’s dramatic center are Porgy and Bess. Angel Blue cemented her position as one of the Met’s new stars, singing Bess with big, handsome tone from top to bottom, holding nothing back. Mr Robinson’s decision to play up Bess’ weaknesses – she gives in very quickly to both “happy dust” and Crown – complicated the audience’s feelings towards her: we root for her all the time but turn angry when she can’t control her self-destructive (and destructive) tendencies. But it’s a rich portrayal, both physically and vocally. Eric Owens, a superb bass, is not quite the bass-baritone the high-lying score calls for, and there were moments of strain. But more importantly, his (and/or Mr Robinson’s) view of him is more passive than I think is valid; Porgy may be a “crippled beggar”, but he is noble and proud and strong; here he comes across as somewhat dour. Owens was best vocally in the loving moments, where his voice turns velvety. All of this is not to say that his is not a successful portrayal; one was just hoping for more contrasting moods.

Conductor David Robertson’s feel for the score is rich and potent, with complete control over Gershwin’s dissonances and jazzy moments as well as the sheerly operatic and tender ones. Chorus, comprimarios and stars are all of one mind. He keeps things moving so organically that it’s hard to remember the paucity of plot; indeed it’s clear that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement that “character is plot, plot is character” has never been more valid. The Met is wise to be presenting it thirteen more times this season. It's a sell-out show.

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