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Porgy — Take Four

Curtain call for “Porgy and Bess” with Rouben Mamoulian in glasses

The latest installment of Conrad L. Osborne’s indispensable opera blog takes stock of Porgy and Bess and the Met’s acclaimed new production. It also graciously plugs my own recent series of Porgy blogs in this space, my American Scholar review of the Met Porgy, and my book (“On My Way” – the Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess”) about this opera’s complex and illuminating genesis.

To my ears, Porgy and Bess is the highest creative achievement in American classical music. Osborne is not convinced.  A crucial sticking point is the anomaly my book exposes: it is an opera with two endings. The first is that of DuBose Heyward, who wrote Porgy the novel: Bess deserts Porgy; Porgy collapses (“Oh Bess, oh where’s my Bess?”). The second was invented by the opera’s first director, Rouben Mamoulian: Porgy lifts himself up and declares himself on his way “to a heav’nly land.”

Is this double ending, not created but creatively absorbed by Gershwin, a unique inspiration? Or is it an unwanted confusion imposed by an ingenious but meddlesome stage director then at the peak of his fame and influence? (Rouben Mamoulian received equal billing with George Gershwin: think about that.)

Osborne finds the Mamouian ending unconvincing, tacked on – “like a rather perfunctory, conventional music-comedy happy ending.” I believe in the Mamoulian ending. Like Porgy’s, this is an act of faith: I have yet to see it adequately realized on stage.

That Mamoulian should have changed Heyward’s ending – a process explored in detail in my book – was merely predictable. He rigidly espoused uplift, and Heyward’s ending  — “a face that sagged wearily, and the eyes of age lit only by a faint reminiscent glow from suns and moons that had looked into them, and had already dropped down the west” – is lyrically yet unrelievedly bleak. If Mamoulian had merely picked Porgy up, the new ending would be risible. But Mamoulian did a lot more than that. He fundamentally reconceived Porgy’s character as prepossessing, actually heroic. He fundamentally reconceived Porgy’s story as an odyssey of personal realization: a cripple made whole. And he furnished a brilliant linchpin for Porgy’s regeneration, the opera’s most telling line: “Bring my goat!”

As I have argued, two necessary ingredients to bring this line off are missing in the Met production, directed by James Robinson with Eric Owens as Porgy. They are also not to be found in the DVD of the San Francisco Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello with Owens as Porgy again.

The first ingredient is the declaration “Bring my goat!” itself — or something sufficiently like it. There is no goat in either production. That is: Porgy is not severely crippled. Rather than ambulating on a goat-cart because his legs are limp, he walks on crutches. For all that we can glean, he could have gone to that picnic after all. His crucial self-assessment – that when God made cripples he made them to be lonely – no longer tells. He is by no means a man for whom winning a woman seems self-evidently inconceivable. So his story of unlikely self-realization, a central tread of the opera, is greatly diminished.

The second necessary ingredient, arising from the first, is that Porgy’s resolve to pick himself up must become a moment of crisis and surprise. We must not know – he must not know — that he can make it. If we do, Mamoulian’s ending is truly “tacked on.”

A further point: Gershwin makes the most of Mamoulian’s ending. He not only provides a great tune; he conceives a musical master-stroke to seal Porgy’s odyssey. We know that his models for Porgy and Bess included Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Bizet’s Carmen, and Berg’s Wozzeck. An important 2007 article by Christopher Reynolds shows, for instance, that Gershwin’s pertinent study of Wozzeck was far from casual. In my book, I propose that Gershwin also had a good look at Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. When Siegfried dies, Wagner composes a singular symphonic dirge. Its power derives from its narrative trajectory; rather than merely memorializing Siegfried, the orchestra here retells a family history beginning with the love and pathetic fate of Siegfried’s parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde. At the close of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin has his orchestra recapitulate Porgy’s story. Not on stage, but in the pit, strands of “I got plenty o’ nuttin’,” “What you want with Bess?,” and “Bess you is my woman now” (among other tunes) are tellingly reprised. It should become one of the opera’s most stirring events, sealing Porgy’s trajectory. Here again the Met production disappoints. This orchestral peroration needs more weight and balance than it receives under David Robertson’s baton. To my ears, it is too brisk (Gershwin’s final instruction  is “Grandioso” and fortissimo). And the motives do not get equal weight, with the trumpet’s “What you want with Bess?” in the foreground and the strings’ “plenty o’nuttin” a secondary strand.

Osborne, in his blog, suggests that essentially Porgy and Bess may be “a remarkable—probably the most remarkable—example of music theatre in the tradition of American stage realism, certainly transcending the model of the musical, though quite strongly influenced by it.” Perhaps this was Gershwin’s drift, however subliminally. If so, he should never have insisted on Rouben Mamoulian directing Porgy and Bess. From Mamoulian’s direction of the play-with-music Porgy in 1927, Gershwin would not only have known the Mamoulianized Porgy and Mamoulianized ending, both of which originate with Mamoulian’s draconian revisions of the Porgy script. He would have also known that Mamoulian, shunning verisimilitude, was a master choreographer of elaborate tableaux. Most notably, Mamoulian in 1927 turned Robbins’ funeral into something like a stylized voodoo rite with towering, precisely calibrated shadows. And in the hurricane scene he unforgettably grouped a huddled mass of terrified human beings into a triangular wedge. Both these effects would be recapitulated in the opera eight years later, as would be a daybreak “symphony of noises” with choreographed sweeping, snoring, and pounding.

Heyward’s Catfish Row had been a cultural anthropological reconstruction by a native Southerner. It is no wonder that he advised Gershwin to hire a different director (he proposed the young John Houseman). In sticking with Mamoulian, Gershwin opted for an anti-realistic staging — the one with the “miracle” ending. Whatever the wisdom of this decision, it is a crucial and conscious component of the opera’s gestation.

(Adducing a realistic Porgy and Bess aesthetic, Osborne adds that “Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, also a tragedy, is the closest comparison I can think of.” Interestingly, Mamoulian was Weill’s first choice for Street Scene — which Mamoulian would doubtless have Mamoulianized. Weill subsequently succeeded in landing Mamoulian for Lost in the Stars — with controversial results.)

P.S. – I have not attempted to share the characteristic richness of detail and insight in Conrad Osborne’s posting. Read it yourself (or read my Wall Street Journal review of his seminal mega-book Opera as Opera). Here’s an e.g.:

“There is no way . . . that one can take in the words, music, and dramatic functions of any of the more prominent characters [of Porgy and Bess] and label them stereotypes. They’re fleshed-out, living people. Nonetheless, they have been vulnerable to attack from the not-good-for-African-Americans p.o.v., which from its more extreme angles objects to the very presence of unpleasant or even morally conflicted characters. It’s tantamount to saying you can’t represent black people, disadvantaged people, poor people, unless it’s to ennoble them, as in a patriotic pageant or on a valorizing mural. That’s not a valid artistic principle.”

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