October 14, 2010


Gershwin: Porgy and Bess. Jonathan Lemalu, Isabelle Kabatu, Bibiana Nwobilo, Michael Forest, Rodney Clarke, Angela Renée Simpson, Roberta Alexander, Gregg Baker, Previn Moore, Yannick Germain Balihe, David McShane; Arnold Schoenberg Chor and Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. RCA. $24.98.

     There are really two Porgy and Besses (if that’s even the right plural), and one man is largely responsible for both. No, not George Gershwin, who clearly wanted this to be an opera; not lyricists DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin; not Rouben Mamoulian, stage and Hollywood director and arguably George Gershwin’s most important collaborator in getting Porgy staged in the first place. It was Alexander Smallens, conductor of the première of Porgy, who first established the work as an opera in 1935 – and then, 15 years later and 13 years after George Gershwin’s death, turned it into a musical by removing much of the accompanied recitative and turning the work into a series of individually effective numbers connected by minimal dialogue. Smallens thought his revised version more effective – he called the parts he pulled out “dull [and] draggy.” But for more than three decades – since the first recording of the full operatic version of Porgy was made in 1976 – conductors and other performers have been trying to restore what Gershwin wanted and make Porgy into what the composer intended it to be.

     The problem is that what he wanted it to be isn’t entirely clear. That 1976 recording (by Lorin Maazel) used the original, uncut score and original orchestration. But Gershwin and Mamoulian changed and shortened a number of elements during rehearsals; the full original version was never performed. Conductors and directors have repeatedly tried to come up with a Porgy that is musically and dramatically satisfying, cohesive and effective, and – if not definitive – at least a good approximation of what they believe Gershwin would have wanted performed.

     Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s turn came in 2008 at the styriarte (no capital “s”) Festival in Graz, and it is that performance – recorded live – that is now available on RCA. It is a fascinating reading in many ways. Dramatically cohesive, incorporating some fairly small cuts in a way designed to advance the action without eliminating any of the musical numbers, it moves ahead entirely in the operatic realm. It is a grand, sweeping, personal and pathos-filled performance – and in some ways is deeply flawed.

     The best elements here are the instrumental ones. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is simply excellent, taking the foreground or background with equal ease and handling Gershwin’s jazz rhythms and frequent dissonances (the latter more pervasive than many people realize) with strength and sensitivity. Some of Harnoncourt’s instrumental touches are simply brilliant: the use of African drums before the Kittiwah Island scene (as Gershwin intended but as is very rarely done – the passages are almost always played on bongos); and the reintroduction of an improvisation-style “symphony of noise” before the opera’s final scene (Gershwin included this Catfish-Row-awakening element at the opera’s first performance, but it soon disappeared).

     The singing, unfortunately, is another matter. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor is entirely too smooth for this music – a refined, elegant sound is precisely not what Porgy calls for, but it is what this excellent chorus delivers, and it simply does not work. The chorus actually sounds as if it belongs in some other opera. As for the soloists – they are of variable quality, the women generally stronger than the men. In particular, Isabelle Kabatu is emotionally convincing as Bess, although she could use more fire; Bibiana Nwobilo is effective as Clara; and Roberta Alexander makes a fine Maria – her dressing-down of Sporting Life (Michael Forest) is one of the best parts of this performance. Forest himself, though, has none of the slippery sliminess that his character demands, and his precise pronunciation of the scat singing in “It ain’t necessarily so” is so misguided as to be funny. Gregg Baker lacks the vocal strength to be a really effective Crown – his challenge to his “Big Frien’” God simply lacks the combination of bluster and peculiar nobility that this scene, at its best, can have. Most disappointing of all is Jonathan Lemalu as Porgy. He gets the character’s emotions right throughout – but not his music. His voice is wobbly, unsteady and all too often off pitch, to the point that it becomes a distraction from the quality of his vocal acting. One unfortunate result is that his end-of-opera determination to go on his hopeless quest to find Bess falls disappointingly flat.

     Another unfortunate element of this production might be called “pronunciation fatigue.” Despite lots of vocal coaching, some opera performers do a poor job of pronouncing the words of languages that are not their native tongues. Not-quite-right German is particularly common – and don’t even think about, say, Czech. This issue actually affects Porgy fairly often, with modern singers – including native English speakers – sometimes having trouble with the Porgy patois. In the Harnoncourt recording, though, this is taken to extremes that interfere with enjoyment of the performance. Porgy sings that he “got no mool.” We get “door” rhyming with “more” instead of “do’” with “mo.’” “Dere” frequently becomes “there,” “bein’” is “being,” and so on. The dropped final consonants are all too often restored, and words such as “yo’” are many times (although not always) rendered as “your.” The result is an opera in which Catfish Row residents speak a far more polished (if not erudite) brand of English than Heyward and the Gershwins ever intended. It sounds as if the performers are verbally slumming – and this really does diminish the quality of their work. Harnoncourt has some unusual and interesting ideas about Porgy, and he presents it very much in the tradition of grand opera – which is a big plus. But the verbal and vocal unevenness of this recording undermine the conductor’s good intentions, and the fine playing of his orchestra, far too much of the time.

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