DECEMBER OPERA REVIEW, by John Raso


Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess is the rare American opera that is truly American. The music was written by George Gershwin who wrote many Broadway musicals in the 1920s with his brother Ira as the lyricist, who wrote the lyrics for the opera centerpieces. The text is by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward who previously collaborated on the play “Porgy” on which the opera is based. “Porgy” derives from a short story of the same name by DuBose Heyward who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, where the news is set. The short story is the story of the people of Catfish Row, a fictional version of the real Cabbage Row, a collection of buildings that once resided for white aristocrats but has become home to the poorest black community.

The protagonist is Porgy, based on a real-life resident named Samuel Smalls, a disabled beggar who uses a goat cart to travel. In the courtyard of Cabbage Row, he plays with the other residents including Crown, a rough man who is followed everywhere by a woman named Bess, who is addicted to drugs supplied by New York drug dealer Sportin ‘Life. Crown is drunk and high, and gets angry when Robbins, the husband of the devout Catholic Serena, wins the game and kills the latter. Crown escapes the police and Bess is left alone. Trying to find shelter, she is greeted by Porgy. Porgy gives him money to help pay for Robbins’ funeral. A month later, fisherman Jake mends his nets. He is married to Clara who has just had a baby, to whom she sings the famous “Summertime”.

Everyone is going to have a picnic on Kiawah Island but Porgy cannot manage the boat trip. He convinces Bess to leave without him. At the picnic, Bess is confronted by Crown who has been living on the island for a month. She struggles with him, missing the boat to return to the mainland, and he kisses her hard. She is bitten by a snake and becomes extremely ill, which sends her back to Catfish Row. Serena prays and she finally recovers. A hurricane begins, forcing everyone to seek refuge in Serena’s room. Crown appears and tries to take Bess with him, but Clara sees Jake’s boat overturn in the bay and rushes into the storm, causing Crown to chase after. Upon the return of the Crown, Porgy assassinates her and is dragged away by the police as an important witness. Sportin Life convinces Bess that Porgy will be hanged and lures her to New York. Porgy returns from prison and decides to follow Bess to New York.

Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway in 1935 with significant financial loss. However, he gradually built up a reputation as an American classic. Porgy and Bess premiered at the Met in 1985 in a production that continued on repertoire until 1990. In 2019, the Met produced James Robinson’s hit touring production of the work with great success. It was really fantastic with the urgent direction of David Robertson and a truly exceptional cast. This is the production that returns this season with the majority of the original cast. I must admit that I do not find it as good as the first time. The cast takes a while to warm up, especially Sportin ‘Life and Maria. “Ain’t Necessarily So” lacks flair and Maria’s Spoken Aria isn’t as captivating as it should be. Both leads are excellent as usual but the first act is still a bit weak. The second, on the other hand, was absolutely magnificent with “I Love You Porgy”, “The Vendor Calls” and “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin ‘Soon For New York” sung terribly. The staging has been faithfully recreated by the original directors, which is interesting because it has a skeletal version of Catfish Row instead of the traditional backyard setting.

This creative team also worked on Fire Shut Up In My Bones and I notice some similarities between the two productions. Both feature abstract buildings on a central hub that move according to the stage (which was done to a greater extent in Fire), a background area that on either side of the stage has benches, and and finally the massive use of projections. To conclude, if you’ve seen Porgy and Bess at the Met before, there’s no rush to see this revival, if you haven’t seen it yet then it comes highly recommended.

Porgy and Bess runs until December 12.

Eurydice

Eurydice is a new opera at the Met. It is based on Sarah Ruhl’s reimagining of the myth of Orpheus. Operas on the subject date back to the earliest surviving opera “Euridice” written by Peri and many more have come over the years. So what sets Eurydice apart? The story is from Eurydice’s perspective and the plot only picks up the main points of the myth instead of an expansion of what’s already there.

Traditionally, the myth is this. Orpheus, a great musician, will marry Eurydice. However Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus follows Eurydice into the underworld and plays beautiful music so that she can return from the dead. There is one condition, he cannot turn to her. He does so and she returns to the underworld, but Orpheus soon joins her when he is killed by the Bacchantes.

Ruhl’s libretto follows a different path, creating new characters and giving Eurydice more agency. The first act begins with Eurydice and Orpheus playing on a beach. Orpheus ties a piece of string around her ring finger and she accepts his proposal. The wedding takes place and Eurydice is hot and receives a glass of water. Hades says he has a letter from his late father and the two are heading to his “interesting apartment” in a skyscraper. Eurydice prompts Hades to give him the letter and falls down the stairs and dies. There is no intermission after the first act. In the second act, Eurydice lost all memory after crossing the Léthé river. Her father teaches her to read, write and remember. Orpheus decides to go bring Eurydice back and the act ends with his arrival. There is an intermission

The third act begins with Hades setting out the conditions for Eurydice’s return to earth. The couple leave and Eurydice watches and is brought back to the underworld. The Father drowns in the Léthé river and Eurydice does the same. Orpheus is dead and is walking in the river.

The opera, although it has its slow points, is creative and imaginative with its retelling of the myth. To underline the importance of language in the story, the production stages the text projected on the stage. Other smart choices are the use of an elevator with shower to represent the descent into hell and the crossing of the Lethe River. A special pleasure is the use of three stones which comment on the story but also participate in it. The music is an eclectic mix of modern and romantic styles that harmonize extremely well with the “magical realism” of the libretto.

Eurydice is great with talented singers who live in their roles. It’s on a completely different level to some of the other work reviewed so far, but it’s very rewarding and definitely recommended.

EURYDICE runs until December 16

Next month’s review will be Tosca

About Madeline J. Carter

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