MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Wednesday November 3rd, 2021.
Welcome back friends!
This week, friends, welcome again, to a thrilling, joyful, unique evening of opera; a modern, folk opera!
Welcome to “Porgy and Bess” (1935), by truly original, incredibly beloved, and highly acclaimed, American composer, George Gershwin (1898-1937).
An opera, I have first discovered, in person, like many, in 2019, at the MET Opera house’s Opening night, and which, like many, also dazzled me, despite its darkness, at times; and which I could not wait, to rediscover again, this season!
This mythical, dazzling, brilliant, incredibly cheerful “Porgy and Bess” opera, despite its bleak storyline, at times, is an opera from 1935, an opera, which Gershwin qualified himself, as a “folk” opera. It is based on a 1925 DuBose Heyward novel, and on its adaptation, by Heyward and his wife Dorothy, of the play, “Porgy”; and this opera includes as well, the great talent of Ira Gershwin (George’s brother), lyrics /libretto wise.
Yay! yay! yay!
Welcome to an unusual, rich, and exhilarating “modern”/”folk” opera, unusual and dramatic, incredibly upbeat and lively, definitely an expressive, profound, and “verismo” opera; an opera which also announces, for me, the full flourishing era, of upcoming beautiful, intense, dark and/or lighthearted, often soulful, jazz laden musicals, which had already started in the 1920s, and which Gershwin was also famous for, in addition to being recognized, as a serious classical composer.
Yay! yay! yay!
Because Gershwin, at 36, was at the height of his creative powers, was constantly working, and was famous for spontaneously conjuring up, incredibly imaginative melodies. Not surprisingly, of course, Gershwin was immersed in various musical influences: from Renaissance Harlem jazz, which artists such as Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and many others, epitomized; as well as Broadway/ Hollywood musicians and dancers, such as Fred Astaire, dancing first, with his sister Adele, and later, with Ginger Rogers, and many others; to his own Eastern European jewish roots; to illustrious classical musicians such as Schönberg, Ravel, Boulanger; in short, Gershwin genuinely enjoyed, and was driven, by all sorts of music genres.
Wow! wow! wow! and Yay! yay! yay!
Therefore musically speaking, “Porgy and Bess” is a great joy to listen to, as it is, a two act opera, overflowing with great diverse and heavenly music (including jazz, spirituals, lullabies, lots of chorus, songs, rush of tides, swirling hurricane winds, bird songs, and some Gullah music from Tidewater Carolina), and a large array of emotions and even dangers (human and nature induced); in short, an opera full of life, which was beautifully conducted last Wednesday, by Maestro Robertson.
Yay! yay! yay!
What is it about?
In a nutshell, “Porgy and Bess” depicts complex, beautiful and dark issues, which the inhabitants of Catfish row, get to face; Catfish Row being, a close-knit, fictionalized seaside, black neighborhood around Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1920’s; a poor, yet joyful, happy mostly, community of individuals, who mostly also, take care of each other, look out for each other, eat together, sing together, dance together, pray together, buy each others’ fish, crab, fruit (strawberries), share cotton hooks, fishing poles and fishing nets; yet, also, a community, filled with outcasts and criminals, all of who, and which, will lead, of course, to all sorts of dramas.
Wow! and oh boy!
Therefore, “Porgy and Bess” overflows with an array of emotions and events: love, friendship, as well as lots of rivalry, abuse, dark crimes, drugs, deathly storms, which will even kill some of the inhabitants.
Yet, thankfully, “Porgy and Bess” is also filled with many heartwarming and fun, everyday life events, such as a delightful festive community picnic, on an island (Kittiwah) nearby, filled with partying, singing, dancing, friendships, love, and joy.
Wow! and yay!
And finally, “Porgy and Bess”‘ open-ended and vague conclusion, fosters also, for optimists in life, the wonderful hope, that love will eventually prevail for the two main, characters, Porgy and Bess, who fall in love with each other, despite being outcasts in life, and despite their own shortcomings, which they are both aware of (their own, and their partner’), and philosophically, accept.
But first, let me give you still, some more insight, into this convoluted and unique story: it is often, pretty dark, bleak, and desperate, as you will see, yet, stays compelling, as “Porgy and Bess” fortunately also, is filled as well, as mentioned, with love, solidarity, joy, and hope, amongst the community, and remains thus, especially moving, thanks also, in particular, of course, to the incredible, energetic, and constantly evolving and original, score/music/lyrics by the Gershwins, and the incredible singing and dancing from the Catfish Row fictitious community, incredibly well choreographed, at the MET Opera house, last Wednesday, with deep, personal and historical relevance, expressivity and humanity, by Camille A. Brown.
Wow! and Yay! Yay! Yay!
So basically, here it is, (“Porgy and Bess”‘ plot), in a nutshell:
In Act 1, we are introduced first, to a peaceful, friendly, joyful, warm, happy, and poor community, in Catfish Row, South Carolina, relaxing after a day’s work, singing to sleep their children, and greeting each other.
We then, discover, as the evening progresses, in a joyful, chill, and entertaining atmosphere, that some of the members of the community, are also relaxing around a dice game: ordinary members, alongside other “sleazier” , “low life”, and even outcasts members of the community, are all, playing craps, together. Some of these seedy types include, a sleazy, unsavory, yet charismatic, lewd, drug dealer “Sportin’ Life”, “Crown”, a mobster like, oppressive, bully, lowlife, and drug addict, accompanied by “Bess”, a young and alluring, complex woman, who we will learn later, is also, naive, gullible, opportunistic, yet loving, and a drug addict, with whom, Crown nurtures as well, a toxic, co-dependent relationship; “Robbins”, a married member of the community (to “Serena”), and” Porgy”, a disabled yet, beloved and good hearted beggar. Yet, the situation will rapidly degenerate and deteriorate, and will end up, with a murder: “Robbins” is violently assassinated, with a cotton hook, by “Crown” who has lost the game, and is drunk and high.
Bess, of course, is shunned from the community, and refuses the protection of Sportin’ Life, but accepts Porgy’s shelter, and compassionate protection offer.
Serena, Robbins’ widow, the following evening, leads the mourners to her husband’s funeral, and as a collection is taken to meet the cost of the burial, which Bess offers to contribute to, as well; it will only be accepted by Serena, when she learns, it comes from good hearted and beloved, by all, Porgy.
Oh boy! and Yay!
A month later, as Sportin’ Life, tries to sell drugs to the community, and is chased away, by Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row; a sleazy “lawyer” also shows up, and sells a fake divorce paper, to gullible and naive Bess, which generous Porgy, pays for, (it is cheap, but it is the intention that matters), to formalize his relationship to Bess, even though, Bess was never married to Crown.
Later, as the community is about to leave for a festive picnic, on Kittiwah Island, Sportin’ Life tries to offer Bess, more drugs, she refuses, and Sportin’ Life is chased off. And Porgy and Bess reflect on their newfound happiness.
Porgy then invites Bess, to join in on the fun, at the community’s picnic, in Kittiwah, even if he cannot go himself. Bess does, and later, as the community gets back home from the island’s picnic, Bess, sees on the island pier, Crown, as she is about to leave the island.
Bess is then asked, oppressively, by Crown, who also, offers her drugs, to stay back with him, on the island, although Bess wants to get back to the community, and to Porgy. And Bess, being mesmerized by Crown’s magnetic personality, Bess, being a drug addict, and Bess, being also, in addition, most probably, under a toxic co-dependent relationship with Crown (we learn they have been together five years, in what definitely seems to be an abusive relationship), Bess, wait for it, actually stays of her own accord, with Crown.
Gasp! and Oh boy!
In Act 2, back in Catfish Row, at dawn, a week later, fishermen leave as they always do, to catch their daily bounty, to be sold later, at the market, despite a dangerous storm warning. We hear Bess (who has returned from Kittiwah Island, two days later, ill and feverish, pretending she got lost).
Bess who now lives with Porgy, in his home, Bess is apparently unwell, since her return from Kittiwah; and despite sensible suggestions, to take Bess, to the hospital, Serena being now friends with Bess, Serena, offers instead a religious and friendly response, offers then, to pray for Bess. Bess recovers, and tells Porgy, that despite her wanting to stay with Porgy, she will be forced to return to Crown. Porgy replies to her, that she does not need to do that, as he, Porgy will protect her; Porgy also tells Bess, he knows she was with Crown on the island, and does not care; and together, Porgy and Bess, sing again, of their happiness together. Menacingly though, we hear that the incoming hurricane, has now reached its full power.
As the community prays for deliverance from the storm, Crown (the vile murderer and Bess’ longest partner so far, let me remind you), Crown seeks for Bess, who refuses to accompany him, despite (let me remind you again, also), despite the fact, that Bess has spent two days in the island with Crown, of her own accord, a week before; Bess refuses to accompany Crown, as she realizes finally, that she actually loves Porgy more (than she does Crown), and wants to stay by Porgy’ side.
One of the wives of the fishermen, Clara, (wife of Jake), then, runs into the storm, to help rescue her husband, while handing her baby over, to Bess, in her absence. Clara is then, followed by Crown, who presumably, wants to help out as well, the fishermen and Clara; and Crown does it (help out), mostly to impress Bess, knowing full well, (and stating it), that Porgy, being disabled (he walks with a limp), cannot go to the fishermen’s rescue, out in the sea, with his impediment.
The next day, Clara and Jake are found dead; and Crown, who has also disappeared, is also presumed dead. Sportin’ Life mocks the mourners’ sadness, and hints at Crown’s survival from the storm.
Later, while Bess lulls Clara’s baby to sleep, we see Crown approaching Porgy’s door, looking for a fight; they fight; yet, Porgy, is actually stronger than Crown, despite his limp, and murders Crown.
As the coroner and detective, the next day, investigate Crown’s murder, the community stays/keeps mum, in solidarity with Porgy, and Porgy is dragged off, by the police to identify Crown’s body.
Sportin’ Life then, taking advantage of Porgy’s absence, tries to convince Bess, that Porgy will be charged with murder, and gone for years, and leaves some drugs, for Bess, by her door.
A week later, as Porgy returns to the community, joyfully, having been discharged from prison, for a small incident only, and where, Porgy also, won some money, playing craps; Porgy is finally told, that Bess has left town, for New York, with Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer. Porgy then, immediately decides to get there himself, to New York, despite the long distance it entails, to recuperate “his” Bess.
Yet, my overall impression, despite all this darkness, in “Porgy and Bess”, is that what overflows mostly, for the audience, believe it or not, as we watch this lively, emotional, and dramatic “Porgy and Bess” opera, is poetry, light, solidarity, joy, love and hope, and Porgy’s incredible compassion, resilience, and desire for happiness, despite all of his challenges, and the challenges around him.
And I think, once again, this overall warmhearted mood, stems mostly from the incredible music, singing and dancing, all of which, are unique, beautiful and energizing.
How about that?
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
And let’s now applaud, the stunning James Robinson production, featuring a tremendously lively, rotating set, poetic lighting design by Donald Holder, the incredibly evocative and beautiful projections, of southern seaside cabins, designed by Luke Halls, the realistic 1920’s garb/costumes, by Catherine Zuber, as well as, once again, the exhilarating and stunning Camille A. Brown choreography, combining contemporary dancing to historic gestures, displaying at times also, unusual, unique, and dramatic “freezes”; and I was also truly moved, by how, each of the dancers, visibly brought, as well, their own personality and soul, to their performance, all of which, allowed also, of course, to showcase with additional energy, pizzazz, and conviction, the amazing, fiery, feisty cast and chorus, as they sang, partied, prayed, and danced (often feverishly), as well, to many soulful, fabulous, and engaging tunes!
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
And again, as two years ago, I enjoyed watching perform, in addition of course, to Eric Owens, the American tenor, as compassionate, loving, disabled, philosophical, tired “Porgy”; as well as American Soprano, Angel Blue, as alluring, drug addicted, frail, yet, loving “Bess”, a few other singers; in particular, five other singers: wonderfully vibrant American soprano, Janai Brugger, as “Clara” (wife of Jake), and terrific also, while singing the first and longest rendition, of the soothing “Summertime” song, which is being sung throughout the opera, twice again, each time, a soothing moment is needed; American mezzo-soprano, Tichina Vaughn, who sang (replacing Denyce Graves for the evening), with great passion and conviction, the role of “Maria”, the matriarch of the Catfish Row community, as well as American bass baritone, Ryan Speedo Green, as the expressive and lively, “Jake” (husband of Clara), and my two favorite singers, for their voice and acting skills, last Wednesday, were the low life, seedy, abusive, dark characters, that are probably a load of fun to perform, “Crown”, brilliantly portrayed, by American bass baritone, Alfred Walker, and American tenor, Frederick Ballentine, as the charming, lewd, and scary “Sportin’ Life” character.
And I just wanted to share a few tunes this week, before closing this post, to showcase a few illustrious arias/songs from this opera, because despite its dark storyline, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, has also delivered to the world, incredible “songs”, which are still incredibly relevant today, to various generations, around the planet.
Wow! and Yay, yay, yay !!!
First, of course, let’s listen to the legendary, iconic “Summertime” lullaby, as it was originally composed by Gershwin, which kicks off the opera beautifully; and let’s listen now, to the voice that sang it last Wednesday, by amazing, and charming American soprano, Janai Brugger, as Clara, relaxing after a day’s work, and sweetly singing to her baby; and imagine also, that the first time, this aria was sung, in the opera version of “Porgy and Bess” at the MET, last Wednesday evening, it included, also, as well to the poetic musical background, not only a full orchestra, but surprisingly, swirling winds conveyed by an amazing chorus, hired especially for this opera.
Wow! and Yay! yay! yay!
Is Janai’s voice, not just incredible?
Now let’s watch Frederick Ballentine, the seductive American tenor, in rehearsal here, as Sportin’ Life, the lewd drug dealer, singing with ease and charm, the famous aria: “It ain’t necessarily so”, and admire also, the dancing that is happening as well, all of it, so expressive, joyful, and intense.
And now, let’s watch, one of the happiest moments of the opera, a remarkable and moving love duet from 2019, between our heroes, and you’ll see, how it reflects well, also, how last Wednesday, Eric Owens, the mighty American bass baritone, sung it, and portrayed fabulously, a solemn, vibrant, protective, besotted and devoted Porgy. As for Angel blue, the beautiful American soprano, she evoked this year, even more magnificently, majestically, and with subtlety, than in 2019, the scarred and fragile Bess, the heart-breaking heroine of this piece, prisoner of her addictions, yet so incredibly happy, strong, and free, when alongside her Porgy, she deeply loves, as we can see.
And to get to admire, yet again, this year, the energy, joy, expressivity, and soulfulness of this moving scene, from “Porgy and Bess” was just wonderful!
Yay! yay! yay!
And now, let’s listen to a few modern renditions, of two of the famous “Porgy and Bess” arias/tunes, which I particularly enjoy:
Let’s start of course, with the most illustrious of all, with iconic “Summertime”.
And of course, my favorite by far, is by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, which I like even more, than the opera version, because Ella, is the best singer ever, bar none, in my opinion.
Yet, I also love this one, by Mahalia Jackson:
And here are two different more recent versions, I also love:
In the first version, let’s add a few instruments for another wonderful “cover”, by another group of terrific musicians, with yet, another mood, and fantastic as well!
And lastly, because “Summertime” is a lullaby, let’s listen to this amazing arrangement, sung by incredibly talented children.
Prepare to be amazed!
And now, let’s listen to another tune, another modern rendition of a wonderful song from “Porgy and Bess”, restyled by a super star, the great Christina!
Yay! and Wow!
And is Gershwin’s music not incredible, modern, and still so wonderfully relevant?
Yay! and Wow!
So, to sum up my feelings about Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” admired last Wednesday, at the MET Opera, in great company: what a terrific ode to the importance in life, whether in a community, or in of itself, of nurturing feelings of compassion, love, friendship, and solidarity, in each one of us, to find happiness.
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊