[Met Performance] CID:279510
Metropolitan Opera Premiere
Porgy and Bess {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 02/6/1985.
 (Metropolitan Opera Premiere)
(Debuts: Charles Williams, Gregg Baker,
Bruce Hubbard, Donald Osborne, Joseph Joubert, John Freeman-McDaniels, Michael Lofton, Mervin Wallace, Priscilla Baskerville, Milton B. Grayson, Jr., John D. Anthony, Clinton Chinyelu Ingram, Jay Aubrey Jones, Larry Storch, Hansford Rowe

Metropolitan Opera House
February 6, 1985
Benefit sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild
for the production funds
Metropolitan Opera Premiere

G. Gershwin-Heyward/I. Gershwin

Porgy...................Simon Estes
Bess....................Grace Bumbry
Sporting Life...........Charles Williams [Debut]
Crown...................Gregg Baker [Debut]
Clara...................Myra Merritt
Jake....................Bruce Hubbard [Debut]
Serena..................Florence Quivar
Robbins.................Donald Osborne [Debut]
Jasbo...................Joseph Joubert [Debut]
Mingo...................John Freeman-McDaniels [Debut]
Jim.....................Michael Lofton [Debut]
Peter...................Mervin Wallace [Debut]
Lily....................Priscilla Baskerville [Debut]
Maria...................Barbara Conrad
Undertaker..............Milton B. Grayson, Jr. [Debut]
Frazier.................John D. Anthony [Debut]
Scipio..................Clinton Chinyelu Ingram [Debut]
Strawberry Woman........Isola Jones
Crab Man................Jay Aubrey Jones [Debut]
Archdale................Gary Drane
Detective...............Larry Storch [Debut]
Policeman...............Andrew Murphy
Coroner.................Hansford Rowe [Debut]
Dance...................Dance Theatre of Harlem Workshop Ensemble

Conductor...............James Levine

Production..............Nathaniel Merrill
Designer................Robert O'Hearn
Lighting designer.......Gil Wechsler
Choreographer...........Arthur Mitchell

The chorus was engaged especially for Porgy and Bess.

Porgy and Bess received sixteen performances this season.

Production gift of Mrs. Edgar M. Tobin, Robert L. B. Tobin,
Mr. and Mrs. John Pomerantz, Ira J. Hechler, and Wilmer J. Thomas, Jr.

PORGY AND BESS has received fifty-four performances in four seasons.

Review of Bill Zakariasen of the New York Daily News

There were virtually no quibbles about the Met's production of "Porgy and Bess," though there were some raised eyebrows regarding director Nathaniel Merrill's decision to move the action of the Act Two storm scene from Serena's room to a shanty overlooking the sea (Merrill claims that it's impossible to see the ocean from anywhere in the welled-in ghetto of Catfish Row). Otherwise, Merrill's direction made no wrong moves, and Robert O'Hearn's impressive sets brought Catfish Row and Kittiwah Island to fully palpable life.

What was most important about this event, however, was that "Porgy and Bess" was, for the first time, on stage, given absolutely complete - well, maybe "almost" complete, since Sportin' Life's token appearance during the storm scene was oddly omitted. This now throws the entire work into much sharper perspective and balance - the grandeur of Gershwin's musical and dramatic vision has never been so apparent. If "Porgy" isn't the Great American Opera, it's at least the greatest "first" opera ever written.

James Levine conducted with messianic zeal and obvious love throughout the four-hour evening, and the orchestral playing was an uncommon luxury for those used to small pit ensembles. Bass-baritone Simon Estes suffered a knee injury during the dress rehearsal, but since Porgy is supposed to be crippled anyway, little harm was done. At any rate, he gave a noble, resplendently sung performance. Soprano Grace Bumbry - in the best voice she's been in years - was hardly short of ideal as the impassioned Bess, and her strut off the stage in Act Three with the dope pusher Sportin' Life brought down the house. Charles Williams, in his Met debut as Sportin' Life, gave a deliciously snaky portrayal, though his voice at times turned grainy and pinched. Among the numerous other debutantes, baritone Gregg Baker was a Crown right out of a "Playgirl" centerfold, sounding almost as good as he looked, and Bruce Hubbard was a solid Jake. Myra Merritt (Clara) sang an iridescent "Summertime," Florence Quivar was a glorious Serena: She sang "My Man's Gone Now" in its original high key. And Barbara Conrad was excellent in the part of Maria. Other members of the cast - too numerous to list here - gave unequivocally excellent support, and the specially assembled black chorus was superlative. Hello "Porgy," it's nice to have you back where you belong!

Review of Patrick J. Smith in Opera (UK)

New York. The first production at the Met on February 6 of Gershwin's" Porgy and Bess" served to give the final stamp of approval on an opera which has already been celebrated with stagings around the world. The old question as to whether or not it is an opera is now irrelevant: Gershwin considered it such, and it has the ambition and size to fit on the Met stage. Certainly the detailed genre sets of Robert O'Hearn and the conservative staging of Nathaniel Merrill only enhance its suitability for a repertory opera house.

And yet, as a prime example of the 'folk opera' (even to the point of creating a romanticized rather than an accurate picture of life) "Porgy and Bess" does raise questions for a repertory house, since the demands of the Gershwin estate are that the opera be given an all-black cast. This meant that there were many debuts in the solo roles, and it meant that the Met had to import an entire chorus (which responded with some of the finest choral singing heard in the house) and the Workshop Ensemble of the Dance Theater of Harlem (whose director and choreographer, Arthur Mitchell, staged all the dances). This insistence was justified at the time of the opera's first performance fifty years ago, and given the continued racial climate today is probably still valid, but at the same time it should be noted that the Met has never considered itself a packager of products-nor should it. Folk operas as diverse as "Boris Godunov" and "The Bartered Bride" are presented with international casts irrespective of origin, and I would welcome the day when a continental tenor could play Peter Grimes at the Met. In such a circumstance, then, until the Met-or any other house-can present "Porgy and Bess" with a cast which could feature, say, Sherrill Milnes and Mirella Freni in the title-roles, this opera will necessarily exist in a 'separate but equal' ghetto within the Met's repertory. If "Porgy and Bess" is, finally, a work of stature it must transcend its limitations, but as of now it remains a black opera with music written by a white.

"Porgy and Bess" is a remarkable work, and if it is seriously flawed as an opera, two things should be noted: one, that at the time of its appearance (1935) it towered over most of the previous American products-only Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts" (1934) can stand comparison with it. Gershwin's strengths are his melodies and his grasp of the Negro spiritual and jazz tradition, in whose world he grew up, and these propel the opera forward. Yet his tentativeness in the vital areas of operatic writing is damaging: the mundane nature of much of the recitative writing, the overelaboration of tunes for their own sake, and an ungainly sense of overall structure. Porgy was played uncut, and the second act especially loses momentum because of it.

In the context of opera rather than musical theatre, these deficiencies are the more evident. For instance, the choral hurricane scene that ends Act 2 is an accomplished piece of writing, for chorus with solo interjections (and a solo song), and in the Broadway terms of 1935 advanced-but that choral writing is no less accomplished than Howard Hanson's for his now-forgotten opera "Merry Mount" (1933) and, as a depiction of a storm, is far less memorable than either Britten's in "Peter Grimes" or Weill's in "Mahagonny." The evidences of other composers in the work can be easily heard, and are of minor consequence, since Gershwin so obviously was trying to create beyond his past capabilities. The attempt was laudable, and the result more than could have been expected: the tragedy is that Gershwin was not able to continue his operatic career, for there is little doubt that he would have winnowed and learned in any future opera.

The production was typical of the Metropolitan: lavish and straightforward, and the cast was uniformly strong. The one miscasting was Grace Bumbry as Bess. She is not only too mature for the part, but her now rather strident voice and aggressive personality skewed the character into a hussy, which sacrifices the sympathy it should have. Merrill's staging decision (not in the score) to have Bess brazenly leave for New York with Sportin' Life only accentuated this unfeeling quality. Gershwin and his librettists wanted her to go into the hut and, sometime later, leave-as unwillingly as she takes the 'happy dust'.

Simon Estes, as Porgy, sang with beauty and security, although he cannot portray the ardent naiveté of the character: he is simply too sophisticated. He had dislocated his knee at the dress rehearsal, and was forced to adapt his performance to another kind of crippling injury than Porgy's, and his courage and resource were praiseworthy. Gregg Baker, as the villain Crown, looked magnificent, sang very well, and provided some acrobatic stage fights a light year away from the usual operatic pussyfooting. Charles Williams, as the eely Sportin' Life had all the moves, and the projection for his show-stopper 'It ain't necessarily so', though the voice is thin and restricted on top. Of the others, Florence Quivar, as Serena, gave a poignantly vivid rendition of her lament for her husband - here, Gershwin's over-use of the Negro spiritual was transformed into an asset.

James Levine gave the opera a symbolic, large-scaled reading, preferring to emphasize its ties with the world of opera rather than its ties with the world of jazz and Broadway. This gave "Porgy and Bess" an added weight - almost a portentousness - perhaps justified by its presence at the Met, if not finally illustrative of the real strengths of the score. But the homage to Gershwin by the Met took precedence.

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