Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Porgy and Bess
(Credit: Evan Zimmerman)
On October 31, 2021, the Metropolitan Opera premiered this season’s Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess series. This revival of James Robinson’s acclaimed 2019 production saw almost the entire cast return to Catfish Row for a truly powerful opening night, led by conductor David Robertson.
The set featured a revolving pension frame that struck an interesting balance between a more conceptual staging and depiction of poor living conditions, while allowing the audience to better watch interior and exterior events. With much of the story taking place at community events, there was often a stage full of performers and ensemble dancers, making it feel like the ensemble’s rarer approach was not lacking.
In the role of Bess, Angel Blue captivated as she fleshed out the character’s arc and her eventual downfall with great vocal prowess and dramatic undertones. Upon entering, we are introduced to a much more heckled version of herself, to cap off her line “Have one for the God-fearing ladies. There is nothing like them, thank goodness,” with slender and provocative tones. This was also seen in the way Blue used her taller frame to look at Maria before banging her with her hip. After starting her life with Porgy, she was able to join in the restoration of spirits after Robbins’ funeral arrangements, and displayed a shy but cheerful approach to his duet âBess, You is My Woman Now.â After swapping lyrical bars in the first section, the second saw Blue and Owens balance out finely their different tempos to come together for a tender conclusion.
His encounter with Crown on Kittiwah Island, now used to close the first half of the performance, went in a direction not often taken. After struggling physically and emotionally with him, this Bess is able to throw him away and start running, only to succumb to her own desires and choose to return to Crown. This choice, while appearing to grant him more agency, also raises the question of how much that was really his own decision, given the influence of the men around him. In addition, the fever and subsequent delirium after the act appear to be more the product of guilt than sexual assault.
Through her connections to Crown, Sportin ‘Life, Porgy, and the rest of Catfish Row, Blue’s Bess goes through a virtually complete cycle of redeeming her original bad reputation, becoming a loyal wife to Porgy and a foster mother to the baby of Clara. , then relapse into addiction and lust. Through all of this complexity, Blue handled the role perfectly and was applauded many times.
As Porgy, Eric Owens brought out a lot of the character’s vulnerabilities and strengths with wonderful effect. His affable entry into the dice game quickly took an introspective turn as the lights cooled and all the other characters froze, leaving Owens to share more of the beggar’s loneliness as the orchestra introduced the motifs that would play a more prominent role in her subsequent love duet with Bess. . This effect was contrasted soon after by the warmth and vitality Owens employed in âI Got Plenty O ‘Nuttin’,â given while surrounded by children and no longer entangled in his community. That frozen moment eventually returned to the finale as Porgy tries to come to terms with Bess’s disappearance, but this time he was joined by Maria and Serena, whose lyrical concerns may have permeated this created space, but were ignored by Porgy. while deciding to travel to New York.
Owens ‘instructions were successful in making the most of her character’s limited movement, a vivid example of this came when Porgy, only able to climb halfway up the stairs to pay homage to Serena in Robbins’ wake, is stayed on the middle platform between flights. while the women wept and went downstairs later; what was the lower ground during the vigil became the high ground during the funeral arrangements, from which Owens spoke rich and reassuring phrases like one delivering a sermon from a pulpit. This was used to the greatest effect for his fight scene with Crown where, after being thrown down the stairs, Porgy is able to fight Crown in a position to kill him. As Owens lay panting in victory, he broke the charged silence with a triumphant cry of “Bess!” You have a man ! You have Porgy! This moment of strength and weakness had all the more impact as it froze in place as the lights let fall a sudden wave of yellow like the early morning glow. For the last issue âOh Lawd I’m on My Way,â Owens used a more high-pitched, angsty quality that helped distinguish his deeper voice from the dense texture of the whole in this truly powerful finale.
Bringing danger to life
As Crown, Alfred Walker did a lot to bring the character’s danger to life. While not the biggest figure on the scene, Crown’s menacing nature was established early on between Walker’s boastful gait and his almost surly demeanor as he grew increasingly violent during the dice game. When he reappeared on Kittiwah Island, Walker’s sentences, while aggressive, initially bore traces of a more touching feeling as he tried to recount his own loneliness, shortly before his attempts to take Bess by force. These vocal qualities helped support the feeling that, despite her disgusting appearance, there were aspects of Crown that Bess found appealing enough to warrant her return after literally slipping from her clutches, making their confrontation a reversal of the previous duo. by Bess with Porgy.
The storm scene saw Walker return again, his confidence and vocal strength became the only opposition to the rest of the people gathered, challenging their beliefs as he recounted his battle with God through the storm. These lines allowed Walker to indulge in longer, exultant tones, while his song about redheaded women used a faster beat as he tried to cheer up his own way. For a character with few redeeming qualities and an almost one-dimensional heel-like nature, Walker’s portrayal was compelling and effective throughout.
As Sportin ‘Life, Frederick Ballentine was slyly charming and very flexible in voice and body. Often on the sidelines of the crowd, her rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” saw Ballentine take center stage and soon make the ensemble dance to her tune, making them follow while delivering her own lines from ‘a variety of postures and positions while maintaining its own support. After putting them in the palm of his hand, he let them do the heavy lifting for this issue’s finale as he led them, and even paused between beats for comment, before finishing so. entertaining as Serena barged in furiously.
Her latest issue, “There’s a Dat’s Leavin ‘Soon Boat for New York,” had Ballentine put all her cards on the table as he presented his vision of temptation to Bess, while keeping a shifting physical dynamic with her. His alluring tones carried a slick of oil, as he moved towards a rising B flat conclusion.
With Bess seeming to fall back into her use of the “happy dust” of her own will, this athletic life comes across as a dangerous and opportunistic catalyst rather than a more direct manipulator of events. The Lie to Porgy was cut from this production, making the latter so hesitant to identify Crown’s body to police, which led to his arrest and removal from Bess’s life. In the end, Bess is on his own, an outcome Sportin ‘Life predicted, didn’t do much to happen, and won tremendously.
Sunday’s cast had no shortage of exciting artists. Serena’s poignant rendition of Latonia Moore’s âMy Man is Gone Now,â nearly brought the show to a close, as her tragic but sonorous outpouring drew an additional round of applause before the number’s actual conclusion. Moore finely contrasted this later when he led Bess’s recovery prayers in the second half, using firmer, reverent tones closed with an ornate, almost jazz “Amen.”
As Maria, Denyce Graves has made a tough but compassionate matron for the community of Catfish Row. His encounter with Sportin ‘Life, âFriends with you? saw her not being afraid to throw herself to the ground, making it clear by threading a shark before turning her knife and aiming at the drug dealer. His genuine concern for Porgy considered her the only one not to make the final, turning her back on him and crying as he rushed against all her warnings.
As Jake, Ryan Speedo Green brought lightness to the work’s earlier scenes as the beefy fisherman serenaded his child with “A Woman Is A Thing Sometimes”. Her warm and resonant voice worked well in her latest issue “It Takes A Long Pull To Get There” leading the male vocal texture.
All of this staging ensured a feeling that something was always happening within the community. From the opening number Summertime, âwe see Janai Brugger’s Clara serenading her baby as the tenants downstairs prepare the banners and decor for the subsequent picnic on Kittiwah Island. This meaning was established musically very early on as its bitter conclusion faded until it seemed to merge into the choir sigh and the smooth transition into the clamor of the dice game.
There were frequently a handful of dancers, whose movements echoed the general mood of the hall. While at times they did a lot to keep the energy going through interesting choreography, one instance where they felt out of place was among the plaintiffs at Robbins’ vigil, though their languid movements were sharply contrasted by the exuberance. which followed when the burial issues were resolved. and the ensemble sang and danced to close the scene.
Overall, there was a lot to enjoy in Sunday’s performance of this Gershwin classic. Despite the more stripped-down ensemble and the condensation of the drama into two acts, the energy of the music and the performers filled the stage and the rest of the auditorium. The roster of star performers consistently grabbed their moments and delivered a night of truly powerful musical drama.