Porgy and Bess: a guide to Gershwin's popular opera and its best recordings
Terry Blain explains how the popular American songwriter came to compose his country’s first great opera, Porgy and Bess, and finds the best recordings
The year was 1926, and it had been a busy day for George Gershwin. His new musical comedy Oh, Kay! was in rehearsal, and when the composer went to bed that evening he reached for some light reading material to lull himself to sleep. Instead he picked up Porgy, a recently published novel by the American writer DuBose Heyward.
Heyward’s wife Dorothy reported that, far from dozing off swiftly, Gershwin ‘read himself wide awake’ that night, gripped by her husband’s dark, gritty tale of African American life in the tenements of Charleston, South Carolina. By four in the morning, Gershwin knew the story was ideal for an opera, and dashed off a letter to Heyward suggesting a meeting.
Little came of that initial contact. For one thing, the Heywards were already adapting Porgy as a play, for production on Broadway a year later. And Gershwin himself was wary of an immediate collaboration. ‘He said it would be a couple of years before he would be prepared technically to compose an opera,’ DuBose Heyward recalled later.
When did Gershwin compose Porgy and Bess?
In fact, it would be a full seven years before Gershwin and Heyward finally turned their attention to making an opera out of Porgy when, in October 1933, the pair signed a contract with the Theatre Guild of New York to write the piece, and Heyward started fashioning a libretto from his novel.
By any standards, the subject-matter of the new opera was controversial. Murder, race issues, domestic violence, prostitution and substance abuse all feature in Porgy and Bess. Additionally, Gershwin insisted on an all-black cast, a stipulation much more radical for the white-dominated world of 1930s opera than it would be today.
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What is Porgy and Bess about?
Yet Gershwin had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve in presenting Heyward’s story of a crippled beggar who finds temporary solace with Bess, a marginalised woman struggling to free herself from her controlling lover, Crown, and drug dependency. By writing what he called a ‘folk opera’, Gershwin intended to ‘appeal to the many rather than to the cultured few’ and to put on stage the ‘100 per cent dramatic intensity in addition to humour’ that he found in Heyward’s novel.
To that end, Gershwin made a five-week trip to Folly Island near Charleston, living in a beachside shack and mixing with the native Gullah people. Intent on soaking up their way of life, he attended prayer meetings, listened to spirituals and studied local customs. Much of what he saw and heard eventually found its way into Porgy and Bess. If some might nowadays call this cultural appropriation, to DuBose Heyward it looked different. ‘To George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration,’ he wrote.
When and where was Porgy and Bess first performed?
By September 1935, the three-act opera was complete. After a private run-through at Carnegie Hall, New York, the public premiere happened on 30 September at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, four days after Gershwin’s 37th birthday. It was immediately obvious that Porgy and Bess was by far the most ambitious work he had yet created, packed with wonderful, jazz-inflected harmonies and powerful choral writing. But it was also very long – three hours-plus, not counting two intervals.
Forty minutes’ worth of cuts were made for the New York premiere, at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway, on 10 October. As in Boston, audiences loved Porgy and applauded enthusiastically. But the critical reaction was mixed. ‘Gershwin does not even know what an opera is,’ sneered the influential Virgil Thomson. One of the most famous jazz bandleader Duke Ellington complained of ‘Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms’ and his borrowings ‘from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’s kazoo band’.
Other critics were more positive, one recognising that Gershwin’s score for Porgy had an ‘amazing fluency’, another praising Rouben Mamoulian’s stage direction as ‘extraordinary in its invention’. But the negative reactions were enough to keep ticket sales below break-even point for the production, and it closed after 124 performances – extraordinary for an opera, but modest by the commercial standards of Broadway theatre.
Gershwin never saw Porgy and Bess on stage again – 18 months after its Broadway closure, he died of a brain tumour. But the virtues of his ‘folk opera’, not least its unforgettable songs (some with lyrics by Gershwin’s brother Ira), gradually began winning detractors over. ‘Summertime’, ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’’, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ and others became popular hits, and remain staples of the Great American Songbook. And though controversy remains about the opera’s depiction of black characters by a white composer and librettist – ‘a white man’s vision of Negro life’, writer James Baldwin called it – Porgy and Bess has long since entered the operatic canon as a classic. ‘These characters,’ as Stephen Sondheim once put it, ‘are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre.’
The best recordings of Porgy and Bess
Lorin Maazel (conductor)
Willard White (Porgy), Leona Mitchell (Bess); Cleveland Chorus & Orchestra
Decca 478 5785
‘Porgy is great, great grand opera’, Lorin Maazel once commented. His 1975 recording was the first ever of Gershwin’s complete score, a full four decades after the work’s premiere. It remains Maazel’s finest achievement on record, and a stirring testimony to the impact Porgy can make when taken seriously as visceral drama.
It was also the Cleveland Orchestra’s first opera recording, and its presence is tinglingly palpable throughout. The percussion in Act I’s introduction, paced perfectly by Maazel, sizzles with intent, and the brass fanfares slice like lasers through Act II’s ‘Oh, I can’t sit down’. No orchestra on record plays this music better.
Leona Mitchell’s Bess is another major asset. Fiery and vulnerable in her Kittiwah Island confrontation with the bullying Crown (the excellent McHenry Boatwright), Mitchell achieves the tricky combination of warm expressiveness and wrenching honesty in the pivotal ‘I loves you, Porgy’. As Porgy, bass-baritone Willard White is oak-solid, rising to a peak of dramatic involvement in the opera’s finale, where he and his goat cart set their sights on seeking Bess in New York City.
Below principal level, the cast has no weak links and many strengths. Among these, tenor François Clemmons’s drug-dealing Sportin’ Life stands out. ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ is vividly characterised without resort to caricature and ‘There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon’ is so winningly sung that Bess’s capitulation is easier to understand than usual.
A youthful Barbara Hendricks, just 26 at the time, is Clara in a fresh-voiced, sensual account of ‘Summertime’, and the Cleveland Chorus also excels itself, despite occasional self-consciousness over the vernacular pronunciation of Catfish Row’s residents. Its mournful chants of ‘Gone, gone gone’ in the wake of Robbins’s murder are among the performance’s most affecting moments.
At the heart of everything is Maazel himself, his rhythms incisively idiomatic, his sense of dramatic pacing infallible. His gift of balancing large forces clearly is significantly enhanced by Decca’s excellent recording, which has a classic analogue richness.
Around the time this set was released in 1976, one critic spoke of Porgy as ‘not just a great American opera’ but ‘the single great American opera’. More than any other version available, Maazel’s recording seems to justify that verdict.
John DeMain (conductor)
‘The whole truth at last’ was one reviewer’s verdict when Houston Grand Opera’s epochal production of Porgy and Bess hit the stage in 1976. It was the first time the opera had been staged absolutely complete, and this cast recording crackles with theatrical energy. Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale are excellent in the title roles, and conductor John DeMain’s swashbuckling players sound more like a Broadway pit band than a symphony orchestra. Slightly dry, occasionally harsh sound puts this just behind Maazel in the ratings.
Simon Rattle (conductor)
Warner Classics 9029590064
Simon Rattle’s Porgy derives from Glyndebourne’s classic 1986 production and has been widely lauded. Compared to Maazel, however, Rattle’s tempos are more extreme, at times over-excitable. Act I, for instance, scoots off at Keystone Cops velocity, sounding scrambled. Slow music is occasionally over-milked too, the great ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ sounding alarmingly like Puccini. But there’s no doubting the sparks that Rattle strikes, with a solid cast that includes Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in the title roles and an excellent chorus.
Alexander Smallens (conductor)
Ever wondered what the original Porgy and Bess sounded like? This priceless Naxos reissue includes the eight tracks recorded by role creators Todd Duncan and Anne Brown for Decca in 1940, plus other historic Porgy performances. Both Brown and Duncan sing with a remarkable tenderness and dignity hard to find today, and Alexander Smallens (who conducted the premiere) accompanies with easeful flexibility. This is a highlights package, but any Gershwin lover will want it in their library.
And one to avoid…
This boisterous 2006 Porgy is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Conductor John Mauceri’s aim was to reconstruct the version of Gershwin’s opera heard by its original Broadway audiences, and record only that. At least 40 minutes of cuts are the consequence, including most of the ‘Jazzbo Brown’ piano music and Porgy’s wonderful ‘Buzzard Song’. Historically interesting, perhaps, but no more than that.
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