George & Ira Gershwin Porgy & Bess
Metropolitan Opera live relay
**** (4 stars)
This is the first time I’ve seen Porgy & Bess, and I found it a curious piece. Using the novel by DuBose Heyward, it tells of the life, loves, hates and struggles of a black community in Catfish Row, which the author based on an actual area of Charleston, South Carolina. Almost the entire cast of characters is African American – the only white faces are a police officer and his henchmen, who appear to ‘investigate’ murders that occur within the community, whom they look on as so much dirt.
The show is packed with well-known melodies – Summertime, It ain’t necessarily so, Bess, you is my woman now, and many more – woven together with fascinating orchestral writing, uniquely descriptive of the community and its time. There are large and small solos for an extraordinary number of singers compared to the usual opera cast – a few soloists and maybe a couple of tiny solo lines here and there – and all are clearly-defined individuals with their own place in the community. It ought to be a spell-binding piece, and it is an enormous hit in New York, with standing ovations greeting the cast every night.
And yet… I found myself conflicted, admiring the quality of the singers’ voices and the sincerity of their acting while at the same time feeling acutely uncomfortable at what I couldn’t help but feel was a stereotypical description of a black community by three white American men. One of the highlights of the Met relays is the interviews with cast and creatives during the interval, where this very question was raised. The African American choreographer and white director were asked this question and gave a very pc answer which didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s impossible for me, a seriously mature white woman who’s spent most of her life in the UK, fully to understand. I couldn’t help but notice the lack of black faces in the audience or the orchestra. I found it hard to stomach the subtitles which made plain the ‘massa’s in de plantation’ language which felt so impossibly dated: shades of the squirmingly awful Mammy in Gone with the wind… Extra performances have been scheduled because of the demand for tickets, the opera is seen as a wonderful celebration of all things American – and yet the gap between black and white America which is so clear in Porgy & Bess is just as wide, or even wider, today.
The performances throughout were magnificent. Eric Owens, despite struggling with a heavy cold, gave an outstanding performance as Porgy, the man who thinks he will always be alone because of his disability: his enormous heart accepts Bess as she is and loves her no matter what she chooses to do. Angel Blue’s Bess was warm, human, and fallible: wanting love and security, but unable to free herself from her addictions despite wanting to. Frederick Ballentine’s Sportin’ Life, snaking his way though the community peddling his ‘happy dust’, was a perfect mixture of irresistible charm and complete self-interest, while Alfred Walker’s Crown was the classic villain of the piece – a violent and unpredictable bully who acted like a vicious dog, unhesitatingly biting savagely when his possessions were threatened. There are too many other outstanding singers in this opera to single out – even the itinerant strawberry and devil crab sellers made the most of their moment in the spotlight and received a round of applause.
It was an evening that clearly demonstrated the strength and depth of talent in the African-American operatic world in America: it’s an enormous pity that so little of that talent takes centre stage in the rest of the operatic repertoire.