Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Douglas Messrli | "It Ain't Necessarily So" ( George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the MET HD-live production)

it ain’t necessarily so
by Douglas Messerli

DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin (libretto and lyrics), George Gershwin (music), based on the fiction by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, Porgy and Bess / Howard Fox and I attended the HD-Met Performance presentation on February 1st 2020.

What can you say of the great American opera, Porgy and Bess? Yes, there are some of the greatest Gershwin brothers songs which include “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” “I Loves You Bess,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Oh, Lord, I’m On My Way”—“Who could Ask for Anything More”?
      Yet there is so much more to this opera, now finally redeemed by the new MET production I saw on an HD live performance on Saturday, February 1st, 2020 so that I can’t imagine why this great “folk opera” was not previously perceived as one the greatest of US opera conceptions. It is definitely not a Broadway musical, at least how I heard it this time round.
      And yes, we all know this was a work conceived by white boys and women, the original book being written by DuBose Heyward and his wife (who deserves her own special tribute), Dorothy, and then reconceived by George and Ira Gershwin. And, we recognize, years later, that they translated their work into a South Carolina dialect and sometimes stereotypical behavior of the denizens of Catfish Row. Yet, this great operatic presentation asks us, straight-forwardly, to get over it. There were dialects, blacks spoke, at that time, differently from white idioms of speech. Good for them, even if they aren’t quite rendered precisely by their white interpreters.
      But no one who sees this opera can really proclaim that these figures are completely stereotypes: in fact these characters, at least in this production, are amazing individuals, each in their own way suffering and challenging us to comprehend their particular identities in a manner that no previous US musical or opera performances had previously demanded.
     Clara (Golda Schultz) hushes her baby by declaring her own ascendancy into the black community in which she resides:

And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

Your daddy's rich
And your mamma's good lookin'
So hush little baby
Don't you cry

      He will ascend eventually into this all black community as a kind of person to “spread his wings.” The Gershwin’s, in short, made it clear from their first song, that this was not a closed community, but an expression of new possibilities. Catfish Row, although locked down each night, was an open possibility of the new, of something outside of the racist world in which most of the opera’s figures, faced always with their possible deaths, knew that their desolate community was alive, willing to create a new world outside of their limited confines.
      And, then central characters, with George Gershwin’s remarkable soaring orchestrations, which conductor David Robertson evinces from the always remarkable MET orchestra, help us to perceive that the drug-driven and highly abused Bess (the amazing Angel Blue) who must, in order to survive, make the impossible decision to move away from both Crown (Alfred Walker) and the truly satanic figure of this opera, Sportin’ Life (a devilishly loveable Fredrick Ballentine).
     As much as she loves Porgy (the always engaging Eric Owens) and much as he loves his Bess, she is doomed by her own past. Another “crippled,” destroyed individual in this community—Porgy cannot quite save her, even if he successfully protects her from the brutal Crown’s attempts to reconnect to a world of a kind of Eurydice and Hades—if there was ever a “them and us” world it is here in Catfish Row—they protect one another while still slightly ostracize their own community members. The balance is nearly impossible; at one moment you are at home, the very next moment thrown out for you own natural proclivities.
      Bess is one of the most tragic figures in all of opera. She loves her Porgy but cannot truly escape her errors of the past. She is hated and loved in a community that would embrace her but, in the very next moment, send her, as the last song proclaims, “on her way,”  This is, in fact, a story about community—all of our communities—which love us and hate us for our variances at the very same moment. The tragedy of this great opera—and in this production I did perceive it as a great opera—was that Bess, despite her love of Porgy, cannot get rid of her demons.

     Porgy, in his last song, had to embrace them, presumably moving on the New York City, where drugs and Sportin’ Life has taken her to, but also to where we truly know will also be his own death, “The Promised Land.” Of course, his reverse travel from South to North (I recall the impossible journey in Irving Reis’s The Big Street, wherein Henry Fonda moves Lucille Ball by wheelchair to Florida), will probably result in his “promised land” death. He will never recover his Eurydice surely, and if he might, he will obviously turn back to see her following him, resulting in her death again. His home to “the promised land” is a certain statement of his sorrow and breakdown.
      Porgy and Bess is as tragic as any European opera. Catfish Row is Venice, Rome, Paris, and all the communities of the world that have witnessed tragic deaths of divas and the tenors, baritones, and even contra-tenors who loved those cities. Forget the dialect, the white writers and composers, who created them. These are major statements of love and desire that remain eternally located in all of our imaginations. Porgy is always in love with his beautiful Bess no matter how we might re-imagine them.

Los Angeles, February 5, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2020).

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