Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 19th of June 2016 at 6.04 - 9.05 pm
Sunday 7th of November 2010 at 3.04 - 6.10 pm
GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess
The classic American folk
opera about love and life in an African-American fishing community.
George Gershwin composed the music, and the libretto was written by his
brother Ira and DuBose Heyward
Porgy........................... Eric Owens
Bess............................. Adina Aaron
Sportin' Life................ Jermaine Smith
Crown.......................... Eric Greene
Serena.......................... Karen Slack
Clara............................ Hlengiwe Mkhawanazi
Jake.............................. Norman Garrett
Lyric Opera Chorus & Orch/Ward Stare
GERSHWIN: Porgy & Bess, an opera in three acts
Porgy........................... Jonathan Lemalu
Bess............................. Isabelle Kabatu
Clara............................ Bibiana Nwobilo
Sportin' Life................ Michael Forest
Jake.............................. Rodney Clarke
Serena.......................... Angela Renée Simpson
Maria............................ Roberta Alexander
Crown.......................... Gregg Baker
Crab Man..................... Previn Moore
Policeman.................... David McShane
Arnold Schoenberg Choir, CO of Europe/
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (RCA Red Seal)
This is an opera, not another of George Gershwin's musical plays; it is based on a novel and play by DuBose Heyward. I can remember when a performance was issued in the 1950s, and I redd a review which surprised me, when it said that all opera lovers must have this.
The composer was Euro-American and Jewish, and the first complete recording appeared in 1976 conducted by Lorin Maazel, who is Euro-American and Jewish; but his singers were Afro-American, though Willard White (Porgy) was born in Jamaica. He also takes the leading role in the Glyndebourne production (on video and audio discs) conducted by Englishman Simon Rattle.
("For the record", I have Maazel on 3 black discs, and Rattle on videotape.)
This latest recording (2010) has Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm. In my record collection (audio and video) he conducts Bach cantatas (dozens of them), and Mozart operas; so another surprise.
New Zealanders will be pleased that Porgy is Jonathan Lemalu (he is Polynesian, the rest are white, and South African). I have a little problem with our Jonathan's voice: he barks and "vibrates" (if you get my meaning). See the review above for another similar reaction to him.
Geoge and Ira GERSHWIN : PORGY AND BESS
Porgy : a crippled beggar, who has a goat-drawn cart, and loves Bess (Porghiy not Porjiy; G as in Gershwin, not as in George!).
Bess : an attractive young woman, playing the field
Crown : a big forceful stevedore who is set on Bess
Sportin’ Life : a charmer, and purveyor of ‘happy dust’ dope, chasing Bess
Clara : a young mother, wife of Jake (Bruce Hubbard) a fisher
Serena : devoted wife of Robbins, another fisher, to be killed by Crown
ACT 1.1 Catfish Row
The Afro-American community of Catfish Row ( a “former mansion of the aristocracy, now a Negro tenement”) in Charleston (South Carolina), live by the sea and from the sea (the Atlantic Ocean, no less), but bales of cotton have a part in their life, too. It is Saturday night, and Jasbo Brown is jazzing at the piano, some folks are dancing, Clara is nursing her baby and singing a lullaby (the one about hot summer weather and jumpy fish), and Sportin’ Life is leading the men in a game of crap, with his crooked dice (Roll dem bones). Robbins joins in, in spite of his wife’s pleading.
Jim comes in and swears he is “done with cotton”, and after accepting Jake’s offer of employment on his fishing boat, Jim throws away his cotton hook (watch that nasty thing, it’s the murder weapon). Jake takes the baby and gives his views on women, who tie you to their apron strings, and then another one comes along, takes your goods, and moves on (A woman is a sometime thing).
Enter old Peter the honey man, and then Porgy (should be in his cart, but could be on sticks). Crown and Bess are on the way, and Porgy is teased about being “sof’ on her”; but he denies it, because Gawd makes a cripple to be lonely, and he got to trabble dat lonesome road. When Crown buys a drink from SpL, Bess proves the women’s accusation that she is a “liquor guzzlin’ slut”, a “hussy drinkin’ like any man”.
A new game starts, and soon Crown calls for “a pinch of happy dust” from SpL. Eventually Robbins wins, and drunken Crown loses, and he is fighting mad; he stabs Robbins to death with a cotton hook. General consternation continues; Crown will go into hiding, leaving Bess to fend for herself, but if any man takes her under his protection it is only to be temporary.
SpL sees his chance, gives her some powder, and offers to take her to New York. No go, but nobody else wants her, except Porgy, who welcomes her into his room. Curtain.
ACT 1.2 Serena’s room
Robbins lies dead on his bed, with a saucer on his chest, to receive donations to pay for the funeral. All chant “He’s a-gone, gone, gone”. Bess’s money (presumed to be from Crown) is refused by Serena, but accepted when she declares “Porgy give me my money now”. Porgy prays and gives encouragement.
A detective interrupts, cunningly accuses old Peter of the murder, but he denies it, protesting that he saw Crown do it; well then, Peter will be locked up “as a material witness”; but when the detective tries to get Porgy to testify also, the response is: “I don’t know nuttin’ bout it, boss”. The detective says the body must be buried by the next day, or it will be delivered to medical students. Peter is dragged off to the police wagon. Back to “gone, gone, gone”, and Serena’s personal lament.
The undertaker arrives, and says that the $15 in the saucer won’t cover expenses, more than $25, and he warns them about the medical students, but finally gives in. He goes, and they all go back to “gone, gone, gone,”, but Bess jumps up and leads them in a happy song: “Oh the train is at the station an’ you better get on board, ‘cause it’s leavin’ today, an’ it’s headin’ for the Promise’ Lan’ ... [where] we meet our brudder”.
ACT 2.1 Catfish Row (Charleston, South Carolina)
It is time to go out fishing, and Jake leads with: “Oh, I’m agoin’ out to the Blackfish banks, no matter what de wedder say”, but then they look for a higher goal: “It take a long pull to get there, Huh! But I’ll anchor in the Promise’ Lan’”. (At the end of Act 1, Bess was putting everybody on a train going to the same destination; eventually she will catch a boat to New York.). Jake has a blister on his han’, and another on his settin’ down place, but not even Mister Hurricane will prevent him. Annie reminds the ‘mens’ that the picnic is on, and Clara warns Jake of the September storms. But Jake wants to work and make money, so that his son can get a college education. Porgy laughs and sings his ‘poor but happy’ song: “I got plenty o’ nuttin’, an’ nuttin’s plenty for me ... Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song”. All agree that Porgy is contented, now that he is living with Bess. Sportin’ Life saunters in, and Maria rebukes him severely.
Enter Frazier (this one is black and a fraudulent lawyer): Porgy will have to buy a divorce document for Bess for $1; but Bess is not married to Crown; ah, that’s a complication, and it will cost a dollar and a half. Porgy pays up.
Mr Archdale, a kindly white man, comes to say he knows Peter the imprisoned honey man, and is standing bail for him; he reproaches Frazier for his dishonesty.
A buzzard appears; if it sets down on anyone’s place it means death, and Porgy tells it to keep on flying, as he is young again, and not wanting to die.
Bess is left alone in the courtyard, and SpL comes to tempt her with dope and dreams of New York. Porgy intervenes, with dire threats, and a demonstration of the strength in his arms.
Jake and Clara come out, dressed for the picnic and ready to strut their stuff; they invite Bess to come. Then Porgy and Bess sing their marvelous love-duet, the equal of anything of this kind in opera; “Bess, you is my woman now”, “Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now”.
All emerge in their ‘lodge regalia’, and go off to the picnic, singing and dancing. Maria urges Bess to join them, and Porgy concurs; he wants her to be happy. He stays at home, glad in the knowledge that he’s got his gal, along with plenty o’ nuttin’.
ACT 2.2 Kittiwah Island
At the picnic nobody has any shame doing what they like to do; amid general gaiety, SpL renders a mocking ‘spiritual’ on the unreliability of Scripture: “De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble to read in de Bible, it ain’t necessarily so”. Serena interrupts this orgy of impiety, accusing them of “behavin’ like Sodom and Gomorrah”. It is time to get on board the steamboat.
Crown calls out to Bess from his hiding-place in the thicket, and remonstrates with her. He has been living on bird eggs and oysters, but he is missing human society; Bess tells him she is living decent with Porgy, but Crown reminds her that any relationship was to be temporary, and he will be coming to collect her; meanwhile, she has him as her man tonight. The boat leaves without her.
ACT 2.3 Catfish Row
A week later, Bess has returned from the island in a delirious state. Peter is out of jail, still puzzled. Serena invokes Doctor Jesus to heal Bess. Peter the honey man joins the strawberry woman and the crab man as they tunefully advertize their wares.
Bess is now conscious, and Porgy knows she has been with Crown; she confesses that he will be coming to claim her, but in another love-duet they say: “I loves you, Porgy, don’t let him take me”; “You got Porgy, you got a man”.
(A hurricane is coming.)
ACT 2.4 Catfish Row (Charleston, South Carolina) Serena’s Room
The hurricane has arrived, and they are all taking refuge in Serena’s room. (Don’t panic.) Doctor Jesus is being beseeched to look down in pity: “Put Yo’ lovin’ arms thru de roof of dis house an’ lif’ me to Yo’ bosom till de storm is over”. The thunder and rain is understood as his weeping and mumbling in anger; but ‘dat Satan’ is suspected of having a hand in the lightning and ‘raisin’ hell upon dis earth’, and he needs to be tied up and thrown back to where he belongs, by the Hev’nly Father. Professor Jesus is also invoked to “teach Yo’ ignorant chillen how to combat de fires an’ torments of dat black visitation from below”. Captain Jesus is humbly requested to treat his soldiers softly, but they are willing to die for him. “Lawd hab mercy”. Serena thinks Gabriel might “soun’ dat trumpet an’ de graveya’ds spew up de dead”; but Sportin’ Life (yes that spiv is there) says “We had storm befo’. I ain’t so sure this is Judgement Day”. Clara holds her baby close, and does a reprise of Summertime. Porgy and Bess are sure that nobody could survive on Kittiwah Island, but “Oh dere’s someone knockin’ at de do’”, and it is Crown, come to claim Bess. Porgy protests, but he is thrown to the floor. Serena orders him to behave himself, or God might strike him dead. Crown retorts that God is his friend, and they have been wrestling together all the way from the island. Crown sings his blasphemous ‘aria’, to the consternation of the company. Clara looks through the window and sees her Jake’s boat upside down in the water; she passes the baby to Bess and rushes out. Eventually Crown follows her, to prove he is a greater man than Porgy.
ACT 3.1 Catfish Row
Dusk. The storm has ended. The folk sing “don’t you be downhearted, Jesus is walkin’ on de water”, to Clara, and Jake (now gone underwater), and even Crown. SL is rebuked by Maria for being disrespectful. Bess sings Summertime to the baby. Crown comes in and is stabbed in the back by Porgy, and then throttled. Porgy exults: “Bess, you got a man now, you got Porgy”.
ACT 3.2 Catfish Row
It is two months since Crown killed the husband of Serena Robbins, and a detective and a coroner arrive to interview her; none of the women cooperate: “We ain’t see nuttin’ boss”. So Porgy is summoned to identify the body. and he is dragged off, declaring that he will not look at Crown’s face. SL now makes his move to entice Bess away, on “a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York”. He plies her with dope (Happy Dust), but she calls him a rattlesnake and goes inside.
ACT 3.3 Catfish Row
One week later. Porgy returns. He had indeed kept his eyes shut at the inquest, and he was jailed for contempt of court. But he took his lucky bones with him (hidden in his mouth) and won a heap from his fellow-prisoners. So he has presents for people, especially Bess. But where is she? Gone to the debbil, with SpL; he had convinced her that Porgy had been jailed for life. She has moved to New York. (In the original text he calls for his goat and cart; we see him walk away, dragging his legs). “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way to a Heavn’ly lan’”. We are left in the dark about the outcome.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, Simon Rattle