To George Gershwin's great disappointment, Porgy and Bess was never produced as an opera during his lifetime (he died in 1937). When it finally opened in New York in October 1935, having been in the works for some two years, it was at the Alvin Theater on Broadway. Although some of its operatic characteristics remained, mixed reviews forced the four collaborators (George and Ira Gershwin worked with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) to replace even more of the recitative with spoken dialogue.
Still, Gershwin is said to have retained his faith in the work. Thanks to the magnificent mounting presently onstage at the War Memorial Opera House by the Houston Grand Opera (who gave it its first full-scale production nearly 20 years ago), he should be smiling in that big opera house in the sky.
What was the problem in 1935? Mainly the subject matter. It was hard for the establishment to consider Gullah culture (still flourishing at the time in places like Charleston, S.C., where DuBose Heyward had grown up) as appropriate material for grand opera. Another difficulty was the creative team; or, more specifically, the composer: As American as Verdi was Italian, Gershwin was devoted to the jazzy dissonances and rhythms of what was then referred to condescendingly as "Negro music." Sixty years later, with Gershwin's musical instincts validated, we are able to bask in today's climate of multiculturalism and appreciate the enormous achievement that Porgy and Bess represents.
Forgoing an overture, the curtain rises on Catfish Row to the gently evocative strains of "Summertime," beautifully sung by Kimberly Jones. The set, designed by Ken Foy, creates an almost medieval world of jumbled, rickety houses in a gated courtyard. The subtextual message, produced by juxtaposing reassuring words against dissonant music, is simultaneously one of safety and one of great jeopardy.
It's the end of a hot summer day, and the residents of Catfish Row are returning from their work in the cotton fields or on fishing boats. An edgy sense of danger arises as the men settle down to their game of dice. Sportin' Life (Larry Marshall), the ever-flashy supplier of booze and "happy dust," arrives, along with Crown (Stacey Robinson), an abusive drunk who is also Bess' man. She, too, is a "liquor-guzzling gal" whose taste for happy dust will get her into trouble more than once. Crazed from drugs and drinking, Crown starts a fight and kills Robbins, one of the players. Crown flees, leaving Bess (Marquita Lister) on her own, friendless in this community of pious churchgoers. The only one who will take her in is Porgy (Alvy Powell), universally dismissed as "the cripple."
The police appear at the dead man's funeral, where his widow, Serena (Angela Simpson), is forced to beg for burial money to prevent the body from being confiscated and given to a medical school. Porgy makes an eloquent appeal to the mourners and averts this indignity.
In no time, the Row is buzzing with gossip about Porgy and Bess: how at all hours of the day and night singing can be heard coming from his room; how happiness has displaced his bitter solitude and her helpless alcoholism. It is not long before Bess is accepted into the community. She experiences a religious conversion and vows to stay with Porgy, even though she has promised Crown she will go with him when he returns.
Omens hover -- the great shadow of a buzzard darkens Catfish Row -- and it isn't long before tragedy strikes. Crown grabs Bess after a picnic, and she succumbs. Several days later, she returns to Porgy delirious with fever. When she recovers, she confesses that she's been with Crown. Porgy forgives her, and she sings "I Loves You, Porgy," renewing her vow to stay with him. Porgy, in turn, promises to kill Crown if he tries to take her away.
A powerful hurricane sweeps over the landscape. When Crown emerges from the storm battered but alive, Porgy finally overpowers and kills him. Porgy is picked up by the police, not as the murderer but to identify the body. Bess despairs, certain that he will be imprisoned for life, and takes off with Sportin' Life. Porgy is freed in a matter of days. His anguish at Bess' flight is quickly replaced by resolve to go after her, even though she is said to have gone to a distant otherworld called New York.
The Gershwins' genius illuminates this work. Throughout the familiar but fresh-sounding classics, melody is woven against meaning so that the first time a musical phrase arises -- in, say, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" -- it is unrestrained in its joy; when it reappears as part of Porgy's anguish, it cuts directly into our hearts. The creators also endow the world of Catfish Row with mystical powers of transformation, healing and redemption -- underscored by the lack of same in the harsh white world outside: The intruding police must speak their mundane dialogue rather than sing it. It's a lovely twist on the Shakespearean model, in which the Bard gave the high-born nobility beautifully flowing lines of verse but relegated lower-class characters to unscanned prose.
Among the principals who sang on opening night (the roles are double-cast), Alvy Powell as Porgy, Marquita Lister as Bess, Stacey Robinson as Crown and Angela Simpson as Serena were particularly outstanding.
Still, this isn't a perfect production. From where I sat in the rear of the orchestra, the Opera House seems to swallow the sound for much of the first act. Hope Clarke's staging needs more dramatic definition. For instance, Porgy's entrance and reception are confusing; we don't realize that he's supposed to be lonely and miserable until someone tells us that now that he's got Bess, this is no longer the case. Similarly, Bess' transformation seems haphazard and coincidental rather than genuinely life-shifting. Their duets, however, are masterpieces of heart-rending simplicity.
Supertitles, dutifully projected above the stage, are distracting at first -- it's written in English, and who doesn't know "Summertime"? -- but soon become indispensable as muddy diction further obfuscates unfamiliar dialect.
These complaints pale, however, when one contemplates not having Porgy and Bess in its intended form. It's a piece of Gershwin heaven.
Porgy and Bess runs through Sat, June 3, at the War Memorial Opera House in S.F.; call 864-3330.