Porgy and Bess – Original 1935 Production Version/John Mauceri

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Porgy and Bess [Original 1935 production version; Restoration by John Mauceri, and others, from the original production materials]

Porgy – Alvy Powell
Bess – Marquita Lister
Crown – Lester Lynch
Sporting Life – Robert Mack
Serena – Monique McDonald
Clara – Nicole Cabell
Maria – Linda Thompson Williams
Jake – Leonard Rowe
Robbins – Barron Coleman
Peter – Calvin Lee
Frazier – Uzee Brown, Jr.
Annie – Tamica Harris
Lily / Strawberry Woman – Tiffany Nicole Wharton
Jim / Undertaker – Justin Lee Miller
Mingo / Nelson / Crab Man – Chauncey Packer
Mr Archdale – Bart LeFan
Detective – Richard Daniel
Policeman – Paul Bracy
Coroner – Talmage M. Watts
Scipio – Jeremiah Cooper

Members of the Blair Children’s Chorus
Nashville Symphony Chorus

Members of the Tennessee State University Band
Nashville Symphony Orchestra
John Mauceri

Recorded 26 February-1 March 2006 in Andrew Jackson Hall,Tennessee Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: DECCA 475 7877 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes

This new recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” (or, as Decca would have it, The Gershwins’, that is, George and his brother Ira) purports to present the work as approved by the composer for its first performance.

Unusually, the opera was published before that première production, and Gershwin (1898-1937) subsequently made cuts and alterations in the process of preparing it.

However, as is well known in the case of first productions of operas, composers are often forced to make changes in the light of the practicalities they face in the theatre, not necessarily because they want them. There are many examples – Bizet’s “Carmen”, Verdi’s “Don Carlos” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” – to name but three.

In the case of “Porgy and Bess”, there is the perennial debate as to the nature of the work itself – is it an opera or a musical? It may be that this dichotomy will never receive an answer to please everyone. Suffice it to say that – in its published version – it is a work of operatic length, through-composed (unlike any musical from the time that ‘Porgy’ was written) and requiring a large orchestra, as opposed to a ‘pit band’.

Gershwin’s style, naturally, has that ‘Broadway’ sound – in places – and is probably, therefore, the first work to combine the styles of both the opera house and the commercial theatre. The composer himself referred to “Porgy and Bess” as an ‘American folk opera’. On the other hand, the first production was in a Broadway theatre, and it was given a ‘try out’ in Boston beforehand, during which the composer was still ‘tinkering’ with his score.

To be speculative – and potentially provocative – would the composer have made the amendments to the score had he had the resources of, say, the Metropolitan Opera behind him? (Incidentally, the Met did not stage ‘Porgy’ until 1985.)

In any event, John Mauceri and his team of colleagues have meticulously researched the performing materials – orchestral parts, prompt books, etc. – and ‘reconstructed’ the score as it was given in 1935.

In terms of recordings, it was not until 1976 that a complete (i.e. as published) version was made – a very fine one conducted by Lorin Maazel, with the Cleveland Orchestra, also on Decca. This doesn’t seem to be currently available, though it must surely return on Decca’s “Classic Opera” label.

Previously, excerpts had been recorded and ‘semi-complete’ versions set down – including one featuring members of the original cast caught during the time of the 1942 Broadway revival and a 1951 Columbia recording which has the ‘standard’ (whatever that may mean) cuts – both are currently on Naxos Historical.

There have also been a number of ‘jazz-style’ interpretations from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald (a wonderful Gershwin singer), Cleo Laine and Ray Charles – perhaps confirming the work as being in the ‘crossover’ category.

A highly-charged version from Houston Grand Opera, hotfoot from a staged production, conducted by John DeMain, was issued by RCA but, again, is out of print.

Trevor Nunn’s staging at Glyndebourne, with Simon Rattle conducting, has been widely-admired and loudly praised. From the purely musical aspect, the performance is far too mannered and the conducting too self-preening to justify its plaudits, let alone its inclusion in EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series.

John Mauceri’s approach is rather different. The project has clearly been thoroughly researched and is evidentlywell-meaning. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the end-result.

First of all, if one knows the complete score, then one will mostdefinitely miss the omissions – pace the booklet notes, which claim: “Most of the cuts will be noticeable primarily to performers”. I also cannot agree with the assertion that those who notice them will think: “Well, that does work better”. Whole chunks of the score are missing – for instance, the very opening scene has, as written, a lengthy piano solo with choral vocalising, setting the mood appropriately. Not here, since most of the piano’s music is cut and we lurch, disconcertingly, more-or-less straight into ‘Summertime’ barely a minute or so after the start of the opera. A verse of the final number of Act One is removed, as is most of the orchestral coda. A whole number – Porgy’s ‘Buzzard Song’ – has gone. Gershwin’s reason quoted to his lyricist brother, Ira, was, “If we don’t (cut it), you won’t have a Porgy by the time we reach New York”. Absolute evidence that this cut was made out of practical considerations, not necessarily for considered artistic reasons.

I don’t propose to list each and every instance – it would take far too long. It is sufficient to state that in virtually every scene there are omissions or divergences from Gershwin’s original conception as published. None, it seems to me, in any way ‘improves’ the score – on the contrary, we move rather suddenly from moment to moment, and are left without important moments of transition or repose. And, indeed, our knowledge of some of the characters is lessened. The feisty Maria, for instance, loses much of her Act Two/Scene 1 music, including the remarkable ‘spoken’ passage – ‘I hates your struttin’ style’ – surely the first example of rap in an opera!

There is, though, some ‘lost’ music restored. In the very final scene, a passage entitled ‘occupational humoresque’ includes some realistic sounds – brooms sweeping, carpet beatings, pounding hammers and clapping – which underpin the subsequent sung “good mornin’” greetings. Also, there is some ‘on-stage’ music played in the story by a band from ‘the Charleston Orphanage’. Conversely, we lose much of Porgy’s narration upon his return from jail.

So, whilst one might applaud the intention to ‘recreate’ the music of the première, the outcome, in my opinion, damages and disfigures the score as originally intended by the composer.

One might perhaps have warmed to this edition rather more had the performance been more engaging, but I am sorry to have to report that this is not the case.

There is doggedness and earnestness about John Mauceri’s conducting that is quite unsuitable for the prevailing sense of joie de vivre that permeates this score. By comparison, one can go to Alexander Smallens – the first conductor of ‘Porgy’ – whose approach can be heard on the 1942 excerpts. The panache and drive found there does not find a counterpart in 2006 Nashville.

The cast includes some names new to me and, for the most part, they are dutiful rather than characterful. One gets little sense of living people in a vibrant, close-knit community. Marquita Lister’s wobbly upper register is not terribly attractive and she and Lester Lynch’s merely grumpy-sounding Crown hardly convey the quivering, sexual tension between him and Bess in their encounter on Kittiwah Island, whose opening scene in this performance (with another ruinous excision) is anything but wild and abandoned.

It’s almost as if Mauceri is so respectful of the score that he is reluctant to let high spirits take over. ‘Oh I can’t sit down’ at the end of the first scene of Act Two is really dull, with a plodding tempo; similarly the aforementioned Act One finale, ‘Oh the train is at the station’, with its driving motoric rhythms, remains decidedly in the sidings, and the final sung chord is distressingly flat – a deficiency, sadly, not confined to this moment.

Alvy Powell gives a decent enough rendering of the role of Porgy, though Willard White with Maazel (he’s also on the Rattle recording) conveys much more of Porgy’s multifaceted character.

There are no poor performances from the remainder of the cast, nor is there anyone really outstanding, though Monique McDonald is powerfully expressive in ‘my man’s gone now’ and Robert Mack may be commended for strong singing as Sporting Life – others often prefer to disregard Gershwin’s notated pitches.

“Porgy and Bess” is an opera which has so many dramatic, colourful and affecting ingredients that I don’t think a literal read-through of a supposedly authentic score comes anywhere near doing Gershwin’s masterpiece justice.

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