Thursday, March 22, 2007

We loves you, Porgy

New Porgy and Bess out on disc

True confessions: until the release of Decca's new Porgy and Bess, I haven't much cared about the two stupid questions that won't go away: Is the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess a real opera, and if so, is it a great one? If Berg's Lulu is an opera, and great (both articles of faith with me), why not Porgy?

But the real reason I haven't bothered about it is that, until now, I've never heard a performance of Porgy (live or recorded) that did much for me. Now having been knocked sideways by this Porgy and Bess, brilliantly led by John Mauceri, I'm on board. This is great stuff.

The ostensible selling point of this Porgy is, of all things, the version. The work of a posse of Gershwin scholars including Mauceri, it is the first recorded Porgy that reflects the show the Gershwins and DuBoses continuously refined for its 1935 Broadway premiere, the tour that followed, and, after Gershwin's death in 1937, a California tour in 1938.

Most performances since 1938 have been based on the original printed score, which was published before the Broadway premiere and really counts as the creators' first, not final, thoughts on it. The Gershwin scholars (fanatics all) behind this new version have scoured all of the available performing materials to arrive at an accurate version of the 1935 performing score, which, just for starters, shaves an hour (and a CD) off the three-and-a-half-hour running time of the "original." In their own words, it "restores the cuts." Take that, authenticists!

Still, musicology, however keen, has never sold audiences on anything. This Porgy
will snag you with its vitality — make that spunk. Mauceri makes good on his assertion that "Porgy and Bess is our great American opera." It's as true to life and involving as you could stand it to be.
The previous Porgys I know have fallen somewhere between overwrought musicals and awkward, self-conscious operas. But Mauceri's instincts for musical theater rival the masters'. This Porgy isn't just "right." It grabs you from its first gesture — a big, Rhapsody in Blue-like glissando — then, in the language of music theater, never lets you go.

With most new critical editions, only experts can hear all but a few of the changes. I can't say that I noticed all of the "literally thousands" of changes the Porgy sleuths have made, but scarcely a second passes without something sounding new, and better. The brighter, jazzier colors in the final instrumentation are only the most obvious improvements. More important, in their fleet new shapes, whole scenes sweep away the old and replace it with something infinitely more believable and striking.

Before spinning these discs, I watched the EMI DVD of the Glyndebourne Porgy, with Simon Rattle leading a highly conscientious reading of the "complete" opera. Its merits notwithstanding, it's a proper, British Porgy that tries so hard to get the idiom right and not offend that it's always walking on eggs. Gratifying as it is that Rattle gives the same attention to Porgy as he does to Fidelio, Mauceri (who's also conducted Fidelio at the Met, and Lulu in SF) drives a performance perhaps only an American could. He and his musicians, including the ace Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, are steeped in the idiom, nail it, and give us a Porgy that sizzles.
To a one, Mauceri's singers are fine vocalists, but not one of them would settle for that alone. Their performances are amply operatic, whatever that means, but artistically at least, these risk-takers exchange vital body fluids, some of which also get on you. You get all snaggled up in their beautiful, sad, messy lives, and when was the last time that happened to you at the opera?
Instead of making a meal of "Summertime," as every soprano I've heard sing it has, Nicole Cabell's Clara makes a picnic of it, beautifully foreshadowing the actual picnic a short act away. Bess' short revival of it as a lullaby, as she watches over Clara's child, is charged with undertones of the danger that infuses the daily lives of these pithy survivors.
Alvy Powell's Porgy is, despite being a paraplegic, no Goody Two-Shoes, yet he's never less than sympathetic. Marquita Lister gives us a Bess (who, despite Porgy's famous tune, is three different men's woman at some point) who actually sounds different when she's with each of them.
Shining like a klieg light over his brilliant colleagues is Robert Mack's vocally snazzy, dramatically savvy Sporting Life. You only think you know "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leaving Soon for New York."
In the irrefutable words of the chorus, "Oh, I can't sit down."

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