A Night at the Opera

I’m tackling a biggie. My random number generator picked a show that is so daunting and so incredibly controversial that I seriously thought about choosing something different. The show in question is Porgy and Bess, which is technically an opera and not a book musical. It is also outdated and misguided at best, and outright racist at worst. These were my main concerns, forget that the cast albums can be more than three hours long! I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. And, as much as I like opera (and I really do), it’s not a territory I really wanted to venture into for this project. But, the original production of Porgy and Bess played on Broadway and the show has been revived there no less than eight times. So no sprint down Broadway would be complete without it. Any show will do, right?

Porgy and Bess features the music of George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. It had its world premier on September 30, 1935, in Boston and transferred to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) within two weeks. While noteworthy for its all Black cast of classically trained singers, the work was criticized from the start for being insensitive to the African American experience and relying on Black stereotypes. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Porgy and Bess began to gain respect in both the opera and Black communities, though controversy continues to surround it. Despite those controversies, today it is considered perhaps the greatest American opera and is performed all over the world. I counted eight available recordings from stage casts, though I was only able to listen to seven of them. I will explain the missing cast album later, but know that I did replace it with a studio cast album that interested me. So, with all that in mind, let’s get into the cast albums.

With a 1935 premier date, Porgy and Bess is the second oldest show I’ve written about so far, after Show Boat. The oldest cast album I could find hails from 1942 and features both the casts of the original production and the 1942 Broadway revival. It is not a complete recording of the score, having been released on a single LP, but all the highlights are here. Right away, I was humming along to the familiar melodies of “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I hummed because I found the lyrics very warbley and difficult to understand. I don’t know if it’s the age of the recording or just the style of the day, but it was a struggle for me. Then again, I had similar struggles with the older Show Boat cast albums so it may just be my ears. Either way, this was not a great start.

We next find ourselves in 1952, and what a difference ten years make! This is a touring cast recording that was recorded live in Germany of all places. While is was recorded in 1952, it wasn’t released until 2008. That’s surprising, because it’s a beautiful album. It is a nearly complete recording of the score and not only is it easier to understand the lyrics here than on the original album, it’s also easy to follow the storyline. This is both because of both the relatively crisp lyrics (for an opera) and the scuffling and rustling that goes along with a cast album recorded live on stage. To top it off, it stars the legends that are Cab Calloway and Leontyne Price. Both give outstanding performances. Overall, I really liked this one and appreciate that it restored my faith in what was to come.

And what was to come was the Hollywood film soundtrack. The movie version was released by Columbia Pictures in 1959 and starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, though their voices are dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison, respectively. While Sammy Davis, Jr. sings in the film, his voice is not heard on the soundtrack due to contact restraints and he is replaced by Cab Calloway. Similarly unjustly, the divinely talented Diahann Carroll is dubbed here as well. But there is one big musical star from the film heard on the soundtrack: Pearl Bailey in her role as Maria. I’m glad she’s here, underused though she is. This is once again a highlights album of the Porgy and Bess score, but it is one more closely resembling a book musical than an opera. For that reason, it may be worth a listen for those more inclined towards a traditional show tune. But, if you’re striving to appreciate Gershwin’s intentions, you can skip it.

In 1977, the Houston Grand Opera released a complete recording of the score that proved to be a turning point in the reputation of Porgy and Bess. Indeed, it is through this production that it began to be taken seriously by opera companies the world over. This is also the first time that I had to listen to a cast album from my vinyl record collection for this project because I could not find a complete version available to stream. This is probably the most famous cast album of the show, and with good reason. Not only is it the first complete recording of the score, and the first staging of the complete score since 1935, but the performances of Clamma Dale, Donnie Ray Albert, and Larry Marshall are breathtaking. It is also orchestrated in such a way as to make the music accessible to show tune fans while not sacrificing any of its operatic integrity. No wonder this production transferred to Broadway and won the only Tony Award ever given to an opera. In short, we are halfway done and this is the one to beat.

1989 finds us in East Sussex, England, at the Glydebourne Opera Festival’s production of Porgy and Bess. I have to say that the highlight here is definitely Cynthia Haymon as Bess; I really enjoyed her. The orchestrations, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, are also stunning and might be my favorite yet. This album is definitely worth a listen, though the story is a little harder to follow than the 1952 and 1977 albums. Plus, it is definitely directed at opera enthusiasts, not so much musical theatre fans. Still, that can’t be held against it and this remains a fantastic recording. I should also mention that this is the second complete recording of the score.

There isn’t another album from a stage cast for twenty years, but I’m stopping off in 2006 for that studio cast album I mentioned earlier. It is unique in that it features Gershwin’s original orchestrations from the 1935 production. You can feel the essence of the ’30s right away in the heavy use of piano and woodwinds on the overture. And the cast is, once again, spectacular. I’m surprised that I like it so well, since I normally turn my nose up at studio cast albums. That may very well be my ignorance showing. In any case, I highly recommend this cast album. It is definitely a contender for my favorite.

Back to the stage we go with the 2009 Austrian concert cast album. This production was conducted by Nikolaus Harnocourt, whose well known penchant for classical music is evident here, especially in the magnificent chorus. I have to be honest and say this is not my favorite interpretation of the music, but opera purists may delight in it. It also features a familiar voice, that of Gregg Baker in the role of Crown, which he also sang on the 1989 album. On the whole, this one is just alright as a cast album.

We finish with Porgy and Bess in the same place we started: on Broadway. The 2012 revival was heavily reworked to suit modern sensibilities, with a new libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks and updated music by Diedre Murray. Refreshingly, both Parks and Murray are Black women, a contrast to the opera’s original white male composers. This allows Porgy and Bess to be seen through a new lens, one that does more justice to its marginalized subjects, while retaining the beloved songs. That’s the biggest improvement here, along with an overhaul of the dialogue. This production can for sure be described as a Broadway adaptation of the opera, rather than an opera in its own right. That’s even reflected in the production’s official title: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. And yes, the venerable Audra McDonald plays Bess here and she is worth the listen all by herself. She can do no wrong in my opinion.

Now, about that missing album: there is a 2019 Metropolitan Opera cast album of Porgy and Bess, but I could only find it available on CD. Unfortunately, I do not have a CD player. When it becomes available to stream, I will absolutely review it for this blog. Until then, it remains a missing piece.

I was nervous that I would walk away from this one resenting having given it my attention. It certainly has its fair share of cringeworthy moments, especially when it comes to the antiquated dialect that verges on minstrel territory. But I have to admit, for all its shortcomings, Porgy and Bess is a beautiful work of opera and for that I must say “bravo.” I may even catch it on stage someday.

Opera: Porgy and Bess

Music: George Gershwin

Lyrics: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Opening Night on Broadway: October 10, 1935, at the Alvin Theatre

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1942 Original and Revival Broadway Casts, 1952 International Touring Cast, 1959 Film Soundtrack, 1977 Houston Grand Opera Cast, 1989 Glydebourne Opera Festival Cast, 2006 Studio Cast, 2009 Austrian Concert Cast, and 2012 Broadway Cast Albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 1977 Houston Grand Opera Cast Album

Runner Up: 2006 Studio Cast Album

Highlights: “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Overall Impression: This show is definitely “of its time” as they say, and that’s never a good thing. But the score is gorgeous and that’s something it will always have going for it.

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