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Breaking News: Porgy and Bess survives its revisions – and sometimes thrives

Let’s start with a prediction: The much-revised Porgy and Bess that was unveiled for the first time on Wednesday at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge will go back to the opera’s original ending, not because it’s sacred and untouchable, and not because Stephen Sondheim went eloquently ballistic in the pages of the New York Times over reports of what was afoot. Put simply, the old ending works better. It’s pitch perfect, in fact, and so solid that it still works when cluttered up with some angsty new writing. And if one can take the vociferous first-preview audience response as proof that the revision works, too, I’ll only speculate that the response would’ve been more ecstatic had the production, in general, kept more of what’s best in the original.

The 1935 George Gershwin masterpiece has a long history of revision, starting from its opening in Boston during which much music was cut. The perceived failure of the subsequent Broadway run led to a version made after the composer’s death that felt more like a musical than an opera. Since the 1970s Houston Grand Opera production that played on Broadway, the drive has been on to restore almost everything Gershwin ever wrote for the opera – then-New Yorker critic Andrew Porter took the position that more was better – so the pendulum was bound to start swinging the other way.

And boy has it swung in this scenically spare production at A.R.T., said to be headed for Broadway, with new scenes, some new dialogue and idiosyncratic new orchestrations – muted trumpets, saxophones and concertina accordion – that change the piece’s landscape, not radically but considerably. Stephen Sondheim’s letter of protest in the New York Times might be most easily answered with a Peter Brook solution: Give the show a slightly different title. Brook’s version of Carmen became The Tragedy of Carmen and doesn’t pretend to be the original.

My appearance at the first preview – not usually what journalists frequent – began innocently enough some six weeks ago upon learning that Audra McDonald was playing Bess. That, alone, enough for me to get on the American Repertory Theater website to buy a ticket for the first-preview, if only because assignments elsewhere meant that this may be my only chance to see it. Only later did I realize that Norm Lewis stars as Porgy, Suzan-Lori Parks is revising the libretto and Diane Paulus is directing.

McDonald remains the main draw. I never thought I’d hear her sing Bess, if only because the opera inspires great ambivalence in the African-American community. Many aren’t sure how they feel about the stereotyping, not to mention the uneducated language (Toni Morrison, for one, can’t abide by the grammar of “Bess You is My Woman Now”). The opera offers opportunities for young African/Americans to sing with major companies but can also turn into a trap. The excellent, versatile bass-baritone Gregg Baker stunned audiences as Crown some 20 years ago at the Metropolitan Opera, and he’s still singing that role, perhaps for lack of other offers. McDonald certainly doesn’t need Porgy and Bess, but apparently couldn’t resist a fresh look at the piece that, at the very least, gave the world some of the greatest music Gershwin ever wrote.

This new production has made some positive upgrades. The panorama of characters in Catfish Row – the 1920s Charleston, S.C. enclave of “Gullah” culture – includes the crippled but resourceful beggar Porgy, lots of hard-working, hard-playing laborers and their families, plus the bully Crown and his girlfriend Bess. So what is the city slicker Sportin’ Life doing there, always trying to talk Bess into coming to New York for a life of high-class prostitution? In this version, he’s hiding out from a bit of trouble in New York and, in the meantime, is dealing cocaine to his “country cousins.” Makes sense.

One song never quite made sense for me was “A Red Headed Woman” sung by Crown in the middle of a hurricane. Now, it’s “red-dressed woman,” in reference to what Bess wears in the first scene, and is yet another ploy to get her back. We also see Bess when she returns from Kittiwah Island mad with fever, having missed the ferry boat – rather than catching up with her after she has deliriously taken to bed. How did she get back to Catfish Row in her ill state? She walked on water – during low tide.

Near the end, Bess’ decision to leave Porgy for Sportin’ Life isn’t just about her weakness for drugs, but her fear Porgy will be convicted for killing Crown and that she will be found to be an accomplice. So she still leaves. But when Porgy comes back from being questioned by the police, apparently scott free, she’s still hanging around with her adopted baby and gives lots of impassioned speeches about how she never will be accepted in Catfish Row. This is in keeping with McDonald’s portrayal of Bess not as a bad woman but someone who looks perpetually hunted, has seen too much and lives in a brutal reality from which she can never really emerge.

But some events are more powerful when they happen offstage – as the Greeks taught us so well. Usually, neither Porgy nor the audience knows if Bess has abandonned him for New York when thefinal scene begins. His slow realization of the truth climaxes in the song “Where’s My Bess,” which still happens after a fashion, but is merely moving – as opposed to devastating. It must also be noted that Porgy doesn’t travel by goat cart (modern directors of all sorts have avoided that) so that when he decides to go to New York, he asks for his cane. Fair enough. And better that than in the Trevor Nunn film version, in which Porgy dramatically sheds even his cane, in a moment that unwelcomely recalls Amahl and the Night Visitors.

The production is still shaking down. I’m not saying much about the other performances because they don’t seem fully realized at this point in the production. But the fundamental problem is that the music isn’t trusted enough. The overall pacing is improved over the original, but at a price: The overture is truncated, the “B” section of “I Got Plenty of Nothing” is gone, though its lyrics turn up in post-song dialogue. The new orchestrations often respect the spirit if not the letter of the original harmonies, but several songs have syncopated rhythmic counterpoint that doesn’t really add much other than a more bouncy, contemporary pace. But in songs where the characters reveal their souls, such as “Bess You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You Porgy,” the more operatic the performance the greater the impact, if only because there’s more of it.

This sort of mistake is often made by theater directors who are new to opera. They think of music as theatrical information. But it’s not. It’s music, and it has powers that we don’t full understand. That’s one reason why opera circles tend to mind the letter of the score. It’s not purism, per se, but an acknowledgement that the music’s delicate ecosystem can be killed by too much intervention. Or too little.

What lies in the middle? Instincts and genius.

Comments

  1. You write a blog. Blogs have a benefit over print media in that when you reference things like “Stephen Sondheim’s letter of protest in the New York Times,” you can link to it! Do it!

    • I believe that ArtsJournal has existing links to the Sondheim letter. In any case, I wrote this entry on an all-night MegaBus that hadn’t much in the way of shock absorbers. It was kind of like working on a roller coaster. So I was lucky to post what I did.
      dps

  2. Hearing that half of I’ve Got Plenty o’ Nuthin’ is gone, in this production, I know that I’d want nothing to do with it.
    Hearing the those very lyrics show up as dialogue — it’s almost like the reverse of having that musical version of Street Car Named Desire finally come to Broadway. I’ve seen too much PC BS ripping apart George and Ira’s music in the past, as if Mr. George Gershwin himself had the temerity to be brilliant and original amid the ever-present sea of mediocrity we now sadly enjoy.
    Einstein’s statement “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” would still appear to be apt. Thank you for posting this well-crafted review of what’s taking place up the coast.

    • I share your concern, but just as a point of accuracy, the missing section is about one third of the song, and is middle where the female neighbors are singing about the change in Porgy’s mood. Also, the 1959 movie made the same cut, which doesn’t make it right by any means. Maybe I’m trying to be too scrupulously fair. At least the A.R.T. team has plenty of time to change its mind…

  3. So you are proud that you broke the “review” rule by reviewing a show that’s in previews? This doesn’t add to the debate it murks things up and misses the whole point of a preview. It’s about the dialogue between the artists on the stage and the audiences. And since you opened this debate, it’s not about tuning this up for a Broadway run, it’s about the run currently at the A.R.T. I saw the show on Wednesday night as well and it’s not my first live ‘Porgy and Bess’ production. It’s also not my first ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ production because I survived Trevor Nunn’s abomination. This new version running is actually more faithful to the novel, the original play, the opera and previous musical versions than any I’ve seen. The ending is faithful to the way Heyward originally crafted the story. Porgy and Bess interact after his time in police custody. As for cuts in the song, let me just say you will be missing plenty if you miss Norm Lewis singing. I will offer this much of an assessment, as good as Audra McDonald is, she’s not the best thing about this version of ‘Porgy and Bess.’

  4. Intentionally I stayed away from singing matters to concentrate on the textual changes that caused such a fuss sight unseen. But since you asked , the Norm/Audra pairing is vocally very interesting. She is more operatic; he is more vernacular. Both seemed equally appropriate. And I have a feeling that Norm in particular will evolve a lot in the coming weeks. It’s also interesting to have an older Porgy. Bess becomes an unexpected coda in what had been a sexless life. Pardon my typing; I had an eye exam and still am revering fom those awful eyedrops that leave you half blind.

  5. Great review, David! I saw the preview on Thursday and I agree the orchestrations are comparably thinner than Gershwin’s. If you know the score you can tell whats “old” and what’s “new.” To be honest, I didn’t miss the sections they cut out too much – I liked the streamlining of the production. The added text was sometimes awkward – I think the actors just haven’t lived with it long enough for it to sound smooth and natural. I also didn’t like how “My Man’s Gone Now” was dropped so drastically in key – it makes me concerned for the soprano’s technique over a long run. All that being said, I thought it was a stunning production with wonderful singing and acting. Audra McDonald was amazing – her voice is a gift.

  6. Sondheim allowed the truncated “Sweeney Todd” movie and a broadway production of “Sunday in the Park with George” with only five musicians so I think he should not complain.

  7. Eric McKeever says:

    It’s interesting that they changed the “Red Headed Woman” song’s title. I was in the 75th Anniversary tour of Porgy and Bess so I have some background knowledge of the show. The title was not specifically in reference to Bess (and her traditionally red hair) but also to the Hurricane itself. His lyrics have a double meaning showing that he is very smart and not just dangerous. Perhaps more scholarship on the director’s part (talking with the many singers who have performed the opera over they years maybe) would have revealed this. The work is filled with so much information, but like all great operas, it takes multiple hearings and conversing with those who have perfomed the work multiple times to unearth their secrets.

  8. We saw the production last evening, Aug. 24 and were thoroughly disappointed, as was most of the audience judging by the absence of any applause following certain numbers, especially the over the top “hurricane” scene.

    Basically we slumbered through the laborious “new” sections with the audience coming to life for the great duet of Porgy and Bess. A standing ovation at the very end represented, I believe, a sense of courtesy and respect for the African American cast that tried so hard to make it entertaining, and perhaps relief that it was finally OVER.

    My own reaction was “Bait and Switch” — will the next production of this group be a PC South Pacific or West Side Story. If you use the name of a masterpiece, it needs to BE that masterpiece, not a hatchet job. Shame on the Gershwin heirs for trying to profit from an ersatz, poorly constructed play under the illustrious name “Porgy and Bess.”

    • Well, it IS still in process. But I know that the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization – while always open to new and better ideas – has often taken the position of, “Just try doing it as written, no cuts.” And the result was that wonderful South Pacific that played at Lincoln Center a few years ago that was both fresh, new and performed nearly (if not completely) as-written. And before that? The lovely Nicholas Hytner Carousel that featured a certain newcomer named Audra McDonald. I remember at her very first entrance, my partner said, “Who IS that?” and was astonished in the best possible way.

  9. I saw Porgy and Bess on Saturday. It was my first time seeing the work or hearing the Gershwin score. I didn’t even know how it was changed until read the Wikipedia entry afterward. All I can say, as a first-timer, is how “this” production affected “me.” I was captivated by the story and the music.

    • Great! You’re probably among the target audiences for this production. As much as I might disagree with specific aspects of the production, it still has some of the great characters and surely among the greatest music ever written for the lyric stage. dps

  10. The kind of bombshells that were dropped in the New York Times preview piece really demanded to be investigated. Many things were suggested in that piece but details weren’t given, leaving people think the worst. You’ll notice there aren’t a lot of strong judgments here and a provisional air to what I wrote, starting with the first sentence. I also acknowledged the strong audience response. I’m glad that the production is consulting the original Heyward texts, but we all know that where the story begins, ends, and what events are put on stage or sung about vary greatly from one medium to the other. You certainly know your Porgy and Bess, and I appreciate your comments. All the best!
    .

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