It was pouring rain in London the whole Saturday afternoon and evening. Lord Henry invited his actor friend to the London Coliseum to see English National Opera’s opulent production of Porgy and Bess. They agreed that it was a visual treat, an impressive musical experience, and a thought-provoking story.
The centre of the stage (design: Michael Yeargan) is Catfish Row, a fishing tenement in Charleston, South Carolina, wooden houses, fully furnished but without walls, surrounding a square. The whole construction can rotate and bring the viewer to the waterfront, with fishing boats and excursion ships. There is a 50 person strong all-black cast, in 1920s costumes, in short, this is a full-scale operatic performance of a “folk opera”.
Gershwin’s music, with its successful eclecticism of jazz, blues and Spirituals, popular hits and powerful choir scenes worked effectively. It is hard to cast a full range of truly exceptional singers and there were clearly stronger and weaker ones, yet in the two gentlemen’s not-fully-professional judgement, the overall musical quality was very high. While the show started with a rather disappointing rendering of the evergreen Summertime [the link leads to an informative performance and arrangement history of the song], perhaps the strongest performance was American baritone Eric Greene’s who played and sung, in short: personified a forceful, life-affirming, energetic and tender Porgy.
Porgy’s story is based on DuBose Heyward’s now little-known 1925 novel, then stage play, with the protagonist, a “crippled beggar” in the centre – inspired by a real life figure in early 20th century Charleston, famously moving around in a goat-pulled cart. The story is set in the close-knit, subsistence-level Afro-American Gullah community, fully imbued in a patriarchal and ethnically coloured Christianity, with traditional ideas of gender roles and family relations, and hints to the reality of extra-marital sex and prostitution, everyday life of hard work made easier by joyful singing, community outings, and less endearingly, gambling, alcohol and drug-addiction. Set in this milieu, the disabled and thus unemployed Porgy, generally accepted and respected but not a fully equal member of the community, first helps to and then falls for the fallen woman, Bess.
Psychologically, Bess is the most complex and interesting, and perhaps the only truly relatable character. With a troubled past, various uncertain and unstable attachments, attracted to both Crown’s physical strength and sexual energy, and Porgy’s emotional support and stable domesticity, she finally opts for an uncertain future, represented by Sporting Life’s doubtful promises of glamour and artificial extasy. In the very last scene,
Porgy sets out to find her.
Surely, it must have been a brave political act, in 1934, to write a mainstream American opera (as in Gershwin’s ambition this is not “just a musical”) based in a Southern black community. But what shall we think of it in 2018? Surely, the libretto goes out of its way to avoid condescension. But how much of the story is still stereotypical and chichéd? How much is exotic, Orientalist, depicting the noble savage? The two gentlemen could not agree on this.
At the end, how important a question is this, given that most operas are less then perfect, dramatically speaking, and often highly problematic, morally or politically speaking?