Seventy years. That’s how much time had passed since this original version of Porgy and Bess was last performed – the only version that composer George Gershwin lived to see. Many say it is Porgy and Bess as he truly intended it. During preparations for the 1935 opening, Gershwin continued to feverishly revise his work. But the score had already been published, so a version incorporating his modifications was never made available. Subsequent productions didn’t include the changes that were Gershwin’s final say on the matter.
Musicologist Charles Hamm brought Gershwin’s revisions to the music world’s attention in 1987. Musical director and conductor John Mauceri (assisted by Hamm, Wayne Shirley, and others) researched and restored these changes using marked-up scores and handwritten notes from the première production.
‘Every note of every bar of music, as well as every tempo’ was examined afresh, according to Mauceri. Many of Gershwin’s changes served to shorten the opera. Others helped the musical flow or worked better with the staging. Most cuts involved unnecessary dialogue. The most noticeable song cut – and the one most missed – was Porgy’s ‘Buzzard Song’.
One interesting addition was a ‘Symphony of Sounds’ replacing the opening of Act Three, Scene Three. In this ‘occupational humoresque’, the community awakens with rhythms of commonplace noises – snoring, sweeping, hammers pounding – that build into music.
Porgy and Bess is set in an African-American section of 1920s Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a good-hearted but crippled man, living alone. Bess is a fallen woman keeping company with bullying criminal, Crown. When Crown kills a man and flees, Porgy is the only one in the community who will shelter Bess. They soon fall in love and Bess overcomes her cocaine addiction (for a time). Complications ensue when Crown returns, a hurricane strikes, Porgy is jailed, and the local drug pusher tempts Bess to run away with him…
The Nashville Symphony presented this opera in a semi-staged format with the orchestra on stage. There were no sets or props but the performers stayed in character throughout, some displaying noticeably good acting skills even in this limited milieu.
Maestro Mauceri and the symphony players seemed intent on giving this historically significant performance the attention to detail that it deserved. As a result, they played with precision, verve, and nuance, a musically excellent performance.
As Clara, soprano Laquita Mitchell opened the opera with a warm, vocally agile rendition of Summertime, setting a promising tone for what was to come. Bass-baritone Alvy Powell, who has played Porgy more than 1200 times, showed his intimate acquaintance with the role. He brought depth, emotion, and dignity to his portrayal. Marquita Lister as Bess has a supple, soaring soprano voice but sounded too cultured given the dialect used and her character’s situation and standing. Lester Lynch as Crown was suitably intimidating with his powerful, imposing baritone. Especially exquisite was the widow Serena’s lament, ‘My Man’s Gone Now’. Monique McDonald as Serena moved the audience with her expressive, emotion-filled vocals.
Besides the primary singers and the orchestra, the stage was filled to bursting with a chorus of more than 100 members and, at times, an 11-piece band and a 30-member children’s chorus. This led to the main flaw of the production: singers’ voices were sometimes were overwhelmed. Additionally, supertitles would have been helpful, especially since the opera is sung in dialect.
The Nashville Symphony will record Porgy and Bess for release later this year. Since even the original cast recording was altered, this version of the opera is something to look forward to.