Friday, March 30, 2012

Porgy and Bess

Much has been written about this controversial new production. I just wanted to hear that glorious music again, live. We had a record of Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price when I was a little girl and I grew up with this music. I really wanted to see it onstage.
All I can say is, next time, I'll catch it when they stage it as a full opera. Because this downsized version is all over the place, and musically, it's a disaster. I am not an expert, but I can tell when singers are overamplified and the orchestra is not, so the instrumentals sound dull or they are drowned out by those microphones from hell. The sound was atrocious. Operatic voices like Audra McDonald's don't need amplification. It makes them sound tinny and kills their warmth.
Then there is the lack of commitment to one style or another. If the Gershwin estate gives its blessing to a Broadway musical version, fine; it's an opportunity for people to experience this wonderful work, who otherwise would not be caught dead at the opera. But then mixing operatic voices with pop voices is a disaster. For instance, Audra McDonald (Bess) drowns out Norm Lewis' (Porgy) every time they sing together. The high voices of the female singers drown out anybody else. The orchestrations sound muddled. The orchestra is not loud or big or precise or passionate enough. This was painful.
George Gershwin composed many wonderful Broadway musicals, but he composed Porgy and Bess as an opera, and that's how it works best, both musically and dramatically. The plot is a heartrending story that fits the mold of traditional operatic tragedies. I have seen no other versions for comparison, but dramatically this adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and director Diane Paulus seems rather thin and tawdry. The conception of Bess is unconvincing. At first she is trouble, a fallen woman, then she reforms through the ministrations of Porgy, but there is something in her that can't avoid self-destruction. In his review in the NYT, Ben Brantley almost died and went to heaven over Audra McDonald. I was underwhelmed, probably on account of the miking, but also because she seemed a little dull (Wednesday night, after a matinee and a prior break for illness, perhaps she was a bit off). I didn't see any of the lusty forces that would make Bess gravitate towards Sportin' Life (the excellent David Alan Grier) or Crown (the fantastic Phillip Boykin). She played Bess like a joyless victim. David Alan Grier is great but Sportin' Life should be more of a menacing, irresistibly charming snake. Bess should teeter between reform and wantonness with more moxie. When the operatic recitative becomes spoken text, things come down a notch. Sublime melodies are accompanied by pedestrian bits of dialogue.
The audience didn't seem to mind. Regaled with such songs, one just tries to enjoy them as much as possible, and the wonderful cast does much to attenuate the production's wild confusion. Everybody onstage is great. Norm Lewis is a very moving, dignified Porgy, and my favorite was the irrepressible NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, the preacher lady.
"Summertime", "Bess, You Is My Woman Now", "A Woman is a Sometime Thing", "I Got Plenty of Nuttin"", "It Ain't Necessarily So", "My Man is Gone Now", and more: what a rapture.
Not that the opinion of a white lady matters, and to judge from the sizable number of Black people in the audience, not that it's an issue any more, but I fail to see how this work is racist, an accusation it has always endured and is still making the rounds. In the 1930's, it was normal to have blatantly racist attitudes in Hollywood films and cartoons (now it's just veiled). Given the time in which it was created, Porgy and Bess was quite revolutionary, as it sought to honor the magnificent Black musical tradition as an essential American art form. Its attempt to be naturalistic did not mean to belittle, but aimed to give a heroic dimension to a people that was mostly seen through degrading stereotypes. What is racist and narrow-minded is to claim that a genius like George Gershwin didn't have the right to create a magnificent work of art based on the music he revered (jazz and gospel, plus his own Jewish touch) just because he was white. Gershwin was not appropriating anything, he was giving back.

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