The case for cutting Porgy and Bess♦
When my colleague Lewis Whittington wrote that the Philadelphia production of Porgy and Bess was uncut, my heart raced with anticipation. Upon seeing this version for myself, though, I had a different reaction: Porgy and Bess needs editing.
I say this as a man who demands the full, uncut versions of the masterpieces of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner– and as a man who loves Gershwin too. I once appeared in a production of his Girl Crazy (uncut) and worked with Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, at the Temple University Summer Music Festival, where I learned much about the opera’s world premiere.
What "complete" means, in the case of Porgy and Bess, is relative. George Gershwin and his brother Ira made cuts during rehearsals in 1935, but a score already had been printed which includes material that even the creators decided to remove.
Truth is, even a good production, like this one by the Opera Company of Philadelphia, drags. This Porgy is well directed and well sung, but flaws exist in the material.
A four-minute piano solo
In particular, the first scene needs to be trimmed. After the opening orchestral flourish, a four-minute piano solo delays the start of action and should be ditched. (Gershwin himself shortened it for opening night.) Right after that comes "Summertime," the show’s most memorable song. But then we have a tedious craps game that takes too long to develop before we get to the fight in which Crown kills Robbins. That’s where the plot starts moving, and we’d be better off if it happened sooner.
There’s an avoidable lull after intermission as well, where the early-morning songs of the strawberry, honey and crab vendors, which provide wonderful atmosphere, are preceded by unnecessary recitative.
Gershwin’s operatic learning curve
Gershwin clearly was new at the operatic craft in 1935 and was learning as he went along. Everyone believed he would go on to compose even better operas, and when he died suddenly two years after Porgy and Bess, people naturally wanted to preserve every note that he wrote. Instead, the business interests of Broadway chose to stage a revival of Porgy and Bess, also with Todd Duncan, which was radically trimmed and which used dialogue to replace some of the more operatic moments. This botched surgery made the preservationists even more eager to see a complete Porgy. But that desire was mistaken.
Despite its awkward moments, this score contains a wealth of beautiful music. And it’s good to hear it rendered by big-voiced performers and a large orchestra.
Gregg Baker’s sympathetic appeal
Gregg Baker’s singing and acting as Porgy is superb. Looking and moving sympathetically, and with his rich voice, he’s tremendously appealing in his first performances of the role. Steven Cole is an athletic Sportin’ Life, strutting and slithering across the stage and doing back-flips, as irresistible to Bess as he is to us. His street-smart, leavin’-soon-for-New York character is meant to sound like Broadway, in contrast to the wholesome, rural Porgy.
Lester Lynch as Crown isn’t sufficiently rough or menacing in stature and vocal weight. But Eric Greene made a great impression in the supporting role of Jake, tall and handsome with a sonorous voice.
Angela Brown sang Bess for the first time, and produced beautiful floating high tones. She used more animation and emotional expression than in previous roles, but she missed the full dimensions of this woman who is part slut as well as a vulnerable junkie. The sexiest scene Gershwin ever composed is "What You Want Wid Bess?," when Bess and Crown re-meet on Kittiwah Island, but this soprano and this orchestra, under conductor Stefan Lano, lack the requisite sizzle.
Colorful dances, static chorus
Lisa Daltrius wields terrific impact as the widow of the man killed by Crown during the dice game. In "My Man’s Gone Now," she blends head voice with chest in a mix that produces maximum squillo, a belting quality that Thomas could use more of. Karen Slack sings "Summertime" beautifully.
Walter Dallas directs the principals well, and, with the help of Patricia Scott Hobbs, stages colorful dance action, especially in "Oh, I Can’t Sit Down." But the scenes with a large chorus on stage remain too static. The chorus members seem too intent on standing still and watching the conductor’s beat.
Incidentally, and for the record: This Opera Company of Philadelphia production is not absolutely uncut. It omits the dramatic “Buzzard Song” that I saw sung by Donnie Ray Albert when Houston Grand Opera produced the show in 1976.
To read Lewis Whittington’s review, click here.
To read Dan Rottenberg’s commentary, click here.
Respond to this Article