March 23, 2010

Porgy & Bess

Yesterday Ms. M and I went to see the Washington National Opera's production of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess.  I have long wanted to see this because I love the music, and was compelled by the operas history.  Though the story is somewhat unsatisfying the opera, and this performance was, frankly, stunning. 

The whole time I was watching, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those first viewers.  People who were used to hearing Verdi were suddenly listening to recitatives inspired by gospel music, jazz, and the natural conversational melodies of southern African American accents.  Reading the notes, I discovered that it was never performed as an opera until the 1980s.  Indeed, Gershwin decided it ought to open on Broadway. 

Though the music is heavily influenced by Jazz, I was fascinated to see how well these songs (so familiar to me as jazz standards) held up to the operatic style and force.  The best number of the evening was Serena's "My Man's Gone Now"--so stirring that the entire audience burst into applause immediately after it was over, and the applause lasted a good 40 seconds at least.  I wasn't a huge fan of the woman who played Bess--she was over-the-top physical, and that distracted me.  Porgy was very fine.  But it was the supporting cast that stole the show: the kinetic Sportin' Life, the empathetic but strong Maria (like a mother-hen!)

I am so glad I saw this production; it really was excellent. It is a testament to how talented and versatile composers the Gershwins were that this music is as compelling and excellent in an Opera, as it is when performed by the Jazz greats (like the artists below):

Joe Pass playing "Summertime/It Ain't Necessarily So"

Nina Simone sining "My Man's Gone Now"

Louis and Ella singing "Summertime"
(P.S. Isn't Ella arodable?!)

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