Review: A Splendid 'Porgy and Bess' Opens the Met Opera Season

(Critic’s Pick)

Review: A Splendid 'Porgy and Bess' Opens the Met Opera Season

NEW YORK — “Bess, you is my woman now,” the disabled beggar and unlikely hero of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” sings when he realizes that, somehow, Bess — desirable, though troubled — may actually love him. She has been a lost soul, a glamorous, hard-drinking woman with a drug addiction who has allowed herself to be claimed by bullying men. Being with Porgy seems to offer a way out, a chance not just for decency, but also emotional stability.

There is no more moving, or consequential, love duet in all of opera. And that’s how it came across on Monday when the Metropolitan Opera opened its season with a splendid new production of “Porgy and Bess.”

As Porgy, the magnificent bass-baritone Eric Owens gives one of the finest performances of his distinguished career. His powerful voice, with its earthy textures and resonant sound, is ideal for the role. His sensitivity into the layered feelings and conflicts that drive his character made even the most familiar moments of the music seem startlingly fresh. And, as Bess, the sumptuously voiced soprano Angel Blue is radiant, capturing both the pride and fragility of the character.

“Porgy and Bess” comes to the Met at a time when the United States is consumed with conflicts over prejudice, demonization of the “other,” economic inequality, sexual assault and an opioid crisis, issues that the opera grapples with in various ways, even from the distant past. But ever since its premiere in 1935, the work has divided opinion, and the debate lingers.

Is the opera a sensitive portrait of a struggling black community in 1920s South Carolina? Or does it perpetuate uncomfortable stereotypes? “Porgy” was created, after all, by white people: author and lyricist DuBose Heyward and his wife, playwright Dorothy Heyward; and George and Ira Gershwin. George Gershwin, in an article for The New York Times, called “Porgy” a “folk opera” — a score that drew upon what he thought of as black American music, including blues, prayer songs, street cries and spirituals. Out of respect, though, he did not quote any existing music, but rather wrote his own songs and spirituals, folding them into a lengthy, ambitious operatic score. Some consider the work a stylistic muddle.

All these questions are valid. But they were pushed aside for me in the moment when hearing Gershwin’s masterpiece on Monday, especially in a performance so authoritative and gripping.

David Robertson led a vigorous yet nuanced performance, the finest conducting of “Porgy” I’ve heard. From the start, with the bustling orchestral introduction, he never tried to jazz up the score superficially, plumbing the music for inner voices, pungent harmonies, layered orchestral strands and rhythmic complexities. Every note in the opening’s jumpy string lines was clear; the syncopated accents had extra punch.

James Robinson’s production, with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber — introduced at the English National Opera in London last year — is realistic, with atmospheric touches. The staging’s centerpiece is a rotating set that suggests the bare wood framing of a rundown aristocratic mansion that has become a shared dwelling for the residents of Catfish Row. Its inhabitants are presented here like a community of oppressed but aspiring people, raising families and praying for the Promised Land, though even the working men with families can’t resist the lure of gambling.

This community is depicted mostly through Gershwin’s extraordinary choral scenes, the core of the opera. The Met recruited and hired an impressive 60-member chorus of black singers. In the opening scene, when Clara (the exquisite soprano Golda Schultz) sings the wistful lullaby “Summertime” to her baby boy, the chorus gently eases into the music, beautifully adding a warm harmonic cushion to Clara’s poignant phrases.

When the community grieves for the hardworking Robbins (tenor Chauncey Packer), who has been killed in a brawl with the brutish stevedore — and Bess’ bullying lover — Crown (bass-baritone Alfred Walker in a menacing, formidable performance), the chorus sang the sad refrains of “Gone, Gone, Gone” with sighing lyricism and swelling fervor. Later on, the chorus shifted readily into jubilee mode for the spiritual “Leavin’ for the Promised Land,” an ensemble led by Bess, now with Porgy, who, at least for a while, has been accepted by the other women of Catfish Row. Blue sang with infectious exuberance.

Every singer in the cast was outstanding. It was wonderful to see the veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Maria, the tough-talking matriarch of Catfish Row. Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as the fisherman Jake, Clara’s husband, and tenor Frederick Ballentine, as the jaded, dope-peddling Sportin’ Life, could not have been better.

And as Serena, soprano Latonia Moore stopped the show in “My Man’s Gone Now,” which the character sings over the body of Robbins, her husband. Gershwin’s music took Moore from almost vibrato-less, celestial high stretches to chilling, chesty low phrases, all of which she sang grippingly. It was overwhelming to see this Serena, in her simple Sunday dress and hat, faltering as she went down a stairway, signing the lament with anguish and anger.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown, in her Met debut, has devised movements — for a small roster of dancers, and often for the choristers as well — that are sometimes highly stylized, with stomping feet and flailing arms. She may push this concept too far in a production that strives to reveal the dignity of the characters. Yet the daring and intricacy of her vision came through.

Some songs that smack of Broadway can seem out of place in the score. But in this production, they were high points. Owens sang “I’ve Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” with a touch of glee, but also genuine contentment. He’s got his gal, the sun, the stars, his life. What else does he need? He may have seemed a little deluded as he sang “I’m On my Way” in the final scene — vowing to reclaim Bess, who has been lured by Sportin’ Life to New York. But as sung by Owens, you believed him.

That “Porgy and Bess” is a portrait of a black community by white artists may limit the work. The response should not be to discount “Porgy,” but to champion overlooked operatic portraits of black communities by black artists and foster the creation of new ones. I saw one inspiring example this summer: Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which the Met recently announced it would bring to New York.

Additional Information:

‘Porgy and Bess’

Through Oct. 16, and Jan. 8-Feb. 1, at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center;

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