It has now been two years since The Met unveiled its splendid, very realistic production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and it has returned triumphant. Michael Yeargan’s huge, three-story, revolving skeleton of a set allows us to see the various simple, threadbare rooms the folks of Catfish Row live in and Catherine Zuber’s workaday costumes, fancier clothes for celebratory times and black for mourning, seem just right. The pre-show curtain features a gigantic black and white photo of (I believe) Catfish Row in the 1920s, but I realized this go-round that it looks vaguely like a concentration camp.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Eric Owens (Porgy)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

As before, James Robinson’s production allows the large cast to interact like the old pals – almost family – that they are: squabbling, shooting dice, teasing one another, singing and dancing. Movement is natural and comfortable. And David Robertson at the helm of the Met Orchestra, playing spectacularly, managed the polyglot score, with its on-a-dime switches from blues to jazz to prayer to operatic playing and singing seamlessly. The Met Chorus, always reliable, dazzled under Donald Palumbo’s guiding hand. Only Camille A Brown’s choreography seems anachronistic – revival meeting? Rave? St Vitus dance?

Frederick Ballentine (Sportin' Life)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

It is becoming more and more difficult to disregard the political ramifications of an all-white creative team imagining an Afro-American community in the deep South in the 1920s. Are the stereotypes being ill-used or are they unavoidable stereotypes of time and place that are being sympathetically celebrated, without judgment? Can anyone claim that Serena’s threnody “My man’s gone now” is anything but an empathetic, powerful portrayal of grief, surpassing race. James Baldwin famously called Porgy “a white man’s vision of Negro life”, an unavoidable truth. But we rarely go to the opera for verisimilitude; we go for the music, the raw emotion. When Bess is ill, one of the other characters says “Better take her to the white man’s hospital” – a throwaway line that crystallizes the community’s struggles and how they must deal with them. But this is neither a polemic nor an apology; it is a review of a performance, one which leaves the audience exhilarated and thrilled.

A scene from the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

The Met’s version of this historically complex score presents three hours of music with a few cuts – Jazzbo Brown’s opening piano riff is sadly missed and it would have been nice to hear the Buzzard Song. But what’s left amazes the ear anew, from the ravishing, familiar but never hackneyed “Summertime”, here gloriously sung by Janai Brugger, with high B flats that floated through the house, to the amazingly misogynistic “A woman is a sometime thing” lent dark, rich tone by Ryan Speedo Green, to Tichina Vaughn’s vicious dressing-down “You low-life skunk” to the drug dealing Sportin’ Life of Frederick Ballantine, who stole every scene he was in which his high-placed tenor and serpentine moves. And, of course Latonia Moore’s “My man’s gone now” left the audience stunned. Mention must be made of “Red-headed woman,” sung by the vile Crown, with Alfred Walker's bass-baritone voice pouring into the house.

Eric Owens (Porgy) and ensemble
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

Bess is a complicated role – a generous, beautiful, woman whose addiction to drugs and the low-life are her ruination. We sympathize with her even as we watch her self-destruct. Angel Blue used her strong, beautiful voice and presence and held back nothing as Bess. Mr Robinson seems to play up Bess’s flaws – she barely refuses both the “happy dust” and Crown’s advances; we root for her, but she’s a victim of her own weaknesses. Eric Owens’ Porgy was a bit more problematic: his once grand voice has weakened and he did not dominate his scenes until the very end of the opera. “I’ve got plenty of nuttin” went for nil – no real self-satisfaction, no humor. He was more often on the sidelines in every scene than in the center. A minority opinion, I fear, but there it is.

The almost-capacity performance rose to its feet when the curtain went up on the full-cast bow. It was hard not to get caught up in Gershwin’s glorious music.