Notes and Editorial Reviews
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George Gershwin miraculously melded classical idioms, jazz, blues and spirituals in this quintessentially American masterpiece about a crippled beggar, the headstrong woman he loves, and the community that sustains them both. Eric Owens (Porgy) and Laquita Mitchell (Bess) lead an amazing cast, pulling the audience into the intricate world of Catfish Row. Recorded live in 2009 at the War Memorial Opera House, conductor John DeMain, whose 1976 recording of Porgy and Bess won a Grammy, leads the triumphant
REGION CODE NTSC: 0
PICTURE FORMAT: NTSC 16:9
SOUND FORMATS: PCM-STEREO DD 5.1 DTS 5.1
SUBTITLES: English, German, French, Japanese, Korean
R E V I E W:
GERSHWIN Porgy and Bess • John DeMain, cond; Eric Owens (Porgy); Laquita Mitchell (Bess); Karen Slack (Serena); Alteouise deVaughn (Maria); Angel Blue (Clara); Lester Lynch (Crown); Chauncey Parker (Sportin’ Life); Eric Greene (Jake); San Francisco Op O & Ch • EUROARTS 2059634 (Blu-ray: 158:00) Live: San Francisco June 2009
Meet the Artists. Meet the Director: Francesca Zambello. Meet the Conductor: John DeMain. Reflections from General Director David Gockley
Two large issues have attached themselves to Porgy and Bess for its entire 79-year history. The first is the question of genre. What is Porgy and Bess? Is it an opera or an exceptional musical? George Gershwin called his work a “folk opera.” But by the time Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in October of 1935, it was 45 minutes shorter than at the world premiere in Boston just a month earlier; the 1942 revival, with more cuts and revisions, was very much a “show.” Porgy still succeeds in this fashion: The latest Broadway version, starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, ran for 332 performances in 2012 and received 10 Tony nominations. But the status of Porgy and Bess as “real” opera was established with the Houston Grand Opera production of 1976. The conductor was John DeMain, who also did a good deal of the grunt work to restore the “operatic” elements, such as the recitative passages. He worked closely with Houston’s young general director, David Gockley, who has had a life-long affection for the work. The second issue with Porgy and Bess that can’t be ignored is the racial politics associated with the work. To quote University of Chicago music professor Travis Jackson, in notes for another production, “How are we to understand its depiction of southern African American life: as something progressive and liberatory or as a barely dressed-up version of what one might have encountered on the minstrel stage of the 19th and early 20th centuries?”
Regarding the second question, we may be getting past the time—most intensely felt during the civil rights era—when many black artists viewed Porgy with contempt. (Duke Ellington was famously dismissive.) Younger African American singers can view the work as having a distinguished performance history involving many great black artists and focus less on whether or not Porgy and Bess was the patronizing and exploitative creation of four white people. In the “Meet the Artists” extra feature appended to this Blu-ray release of a 2009 San Francisco Opera performance, all the singers speaking seem quite genuine in their informed and enthusiastic appreciation of Gershwin’s magnum opus. As for the first issue, these younger artists, who spend most of their time singing Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini, also insist forcefully that Porgy is a true opera as they understand it—and their performances certainly support that contention.
David Gockley and John DeMain were reunited for the San Francisco production (which originated with the Washington National Opera) and assembled a cast of principal singers who all—save one—had extensive experience portraying the citizens of Catfish Row. Chauncey Parker has made a specialty of the role of the dope-dealing Sportin’ Life and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a showstopper. Lester Lynch is an imperiously villainous Crown (he has sung Porgy in other productions) and Serena, Clara, and Maria are effectively and distinctively represented by Karen Slack, Angel Blue, and Alteouise deVaughn. Eric Greene is a strapping, heroically voiced Jake. Very small roles, such as Crab Man (Ashley Faatoalia) and Strawberry Woman (Samantha McElhaney) are luxuriantly covered. As Bess, Laquita Mitchell gives a sexy, complex, and securely sung performance—she’s all breasts and hips when she enters, drunk, with Crown in act I, but it’s her sweetly vulnerable countenance and the richly expressive vocalism manifest in her scenes with Porgy that stays with you. Eric Owens is the only lead in the production singing his part on stage for the first time, and is he ever perfect for the role. Those who have heard his Alberich in the Met’s current Ring cycle will know what to expect—the Philadelphia native has a commanding bass-baritone instrument placed in the service of illuminating the motivations and emotional states of his character. Owens’s Porgy is never pathetic or pitiable, and the opera ends with a profound hopefulness as he exits stage left on his way to New York, and to Bess.
The stage setting, while allegedly moved to the 1950s, looks pretty much like most other Porgys you’ve seen; an abstracted take from a Peter Sellars, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, or Robert Wilson might soon be possible, now that the work’s “baggage” seems to be receding. The orchestral contribution is unassailable and audio quality is good. Subtitle choices are English, German, French, Japanese, and Korean. Any comprehensive opera video collection must include Porgy and Bess, and this one is no mere stopgap.
FANFARE: Andrew Quint Read less
Works on This Recording
Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin
Eric Owens (Baritone),
Laquita Mitchell (Soprano),
Karen Slack (Soprano),
Chauncey Packer (Tenor),
Lester Lynch (Baritone)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra,
San Francisco Opera Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1935; USA
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