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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


Porgy And Bess
Metropolitan Opera    Summer 2020

This Metropolitan Opera Company production of the Gershwin-Heyward opera was broadcast on American television in February 2020 and available online through the summer. It is far more successful than not, the only weaknesses lying in a couple of the secondary performances.

Foremost among the attractions is Angel Blue's Bess, Blue's crystal-pure soprano achieving heart-stopping beauty in Bess You Is My Woman Now and I Loves You Porgy. And – with shared credit to director James Robinson – Blue doesn't just make pretty noises with her mouth, but acts the words and the role movingly.

Eric Owens' Porgy is a somewhat less flashy role – while she soars through Bess You Is My Woman Now he remains grounded. So it may take a while to realize that his solid support is what allows her to soar, just as his no-nonsense performance throughout anchors the opera in emotional reality.

Owens is also a more mobile Porgy than some, limited only by a single crutch and therefore relying less on easy pathos.

Both stars also shine through outstanding musical enunciation, making the Met's subtitles superfluous. If only that could be said of the rest of the cast, too many of whom (including the chorus) fall into the opera singer's failing of sacrificing clear diction to undifferentiated open vowels and tremolo, making the subtitles as necessary as they would be in an Italian opera.

The biggest disappointment here is Golda Schultz's Clara, who opens the opera with a Summertime almost completely lacking in consonants. (When Bess reprises the song later, Angel Blue puts Schultz to shame and shows us what it should have sounded like.)

Elsewhere, Fred Erick Ballentine has been skilfully directed to make Sportin' Life seem less like he wandered in from some musical comedy in the theatre next door than is too often the case. Not a flashy dresser, he frequently blends in with the crowd, and he makes Ain't Necessarily So and There's A Boat feel more a part of the opera's musical vocabulary and less like interpolations.

Brief glimpses of Camille A. Brown's Alvin Ailey-style choreography leave us wishing for more.

A note on the credits. Contractual obligations make the Met call this 'The Gershwins' Porgy And Bess,' which is doubly unfortunate, first because that label was also used for the musically-emasculated easier-to-sing theatre version of 2006, and second because the libretto and most of the lyrics are taken from the original play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.

No less a judge than Stephen Sondheim has written '[DuBose] Heyward's lyrics for Porgy And Bess are, as a set, the most beautiful and powerful in our musical-theatre history.' Give credit where it's due.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of Porgy And Bess 2020