Wednesday, March 09, 2011

We Loves You, Porgy

(reflections on the March 4 performance of PORGY and BESS by George Gershwin, with libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, produced by the Altanta Opera Company. Also reflection on Pierre Ruhes' review and comments at Arts Critic Atlanta.)

photo from
Atlanta Opera Company's recent PORGY AND BESS dispelled the doubts I'd had about the work going into it. I'd always felt that Gershwin and his collaborators overstuffed its two acts with melodies and incidents and lost their focus. This was the line recently taken by Atlanta Critic Pierre Ruhe.

But this production made clear the opera's sharp focus on opposites in the world of Catfish Row, richly underscored by contrasts in Gershwin's music: upright religion versus underworld sensuality, gospel versus jazz, "Doctor Jesus" versus Sportin' Life, women versus men, town versus country, work versus release. In two amusing episodes, there'a also white versus black: whites cynical, bullying, speaking their terse lines; blacks wary, submissive, singing their responses.

Gershwin's music establishes a chiaroscuro design. In just the first couple of minutes, Gershwin opposes the pounding piano of the dance hall against the fond yearnings of hope and religious faith in "Summertime." The mother's dreamy lullabye contrasts minutes later to the father's mocking one. Men roll dice to a quirky, percussive music that pervades the act, and Gershwin eventually layers the strains of "Summertime" over the gambling music as the first scene reaches its climax.

Porgy is the fulcrum of the structure. His music sets him apart. Calls of "here comes Porgy" and a swelling of good feeling with lively music mark the crippled man's entrance on his little pallet with wheels. The stage is crowded with the men who are gambling, and the women who are disapproving, and the merchants selling their wares. Porgy is asking about Bess, consort of the thug Crown, and someone asks if he's "soft on Bess." Porgy replies, "No, no, brudder, Porgy ain't sof' on no woman," and then all action on stage is suspended as Porgy begins this odd and wonderful little piece:

They pass by singin', they pass by cryin', always lookin'.

They look in my do' an' they keep on movin'.
When Gawd make cripple, He mean him to be lonely.

Night time, day time, He got to trabble dat lonesome road.

Night time, day time, He got to trabble dat lonesome road.

It's not a full-fledged song, and it's not recitative. Up to the word "movin'," it's a series of short phrases that rise and fall, interrupted by harsh orchestral echoes of the two-syallable words "singin'" and "cryin'." They sound like alarm bells. Then the line soars from "God" to "lonely," before falling back to the mournful repeated lines.

Then action resumes, a story of how Porgy comes to be Bess's protector, and he grows into full life at last.

Bess teeters between the opposites of this world, rejected by the righteous women, abused by the criminal men. Caring for Porgy and for the orphaned child of Clara, she gains some measure of self-respect and sympathy from the audience. Then a snort of "happy dust" is all it takes for her to abandon all to follow Sportin' Life to New York, where she'll likely be merchandise for Sportin' Life's new line of work.

If we try to see the opera as a love story between Porgy and Bess, we'll be disappointed. Porgy's caring for Bess is just the expression of a faith (not a religion) that matters to the opera's creators.

Porgy -- with Jake and Clara -- marks the sweet spot between the cruel self-righteous religion of the women and the cruel self-absorbed hedonism of Crown and Sportin' Life. His faith is naive in its beliefs, but it is also a source for true courage and goodness.

This production was noted nation-wide for its use of luminous photographic projections on two vast frames. These allowed action to shift in an instant from Catfish Row in the shadows of Charleston's fine old homes, to the shuttered interior of the church, to the lush green Kittiwa Island. Video footage of a hurricane illustrated Gershwin's evocative storm music.

It may have been the uncluttered stage that helped make clear Gershwin's intentions in this production in a way that other productions I've seen have failed to do.

No comments: