Gershwin Writ Small

Horowitz_247524hJoseph Horowitz on the controversial production of Porgy and Bess now on Broadway, in the TLS:

Porgy and Bess – with music by George Gershwin, a book by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin – split opinion when it opened on Broadway in 1935. No American could respond without prejudice to a black opera by a Brooklyn Jew with roots in Tin Pan Alley. Only immigrants and foreigners found it possible to acclaim Gershwin without patronizing him. A Broadway revival in 1942, recasting the opera as a musical, was more successful. In the 1950s and 60s, Porgy and Bess was little performed in the United States; its depiction of an impoverished African American courtyard community was considered demeaning. From 1976, a widely seen Houston Grand Opera production revalidated Porgy and Bess and proved its operatic mettle. A production at the Metropolitan Opera in 1985 was a ponderous failure.

The new Porgy and Bess is nothing if not boldly conceived. In 1942, five years after Gershwin’s death, his recitatives were replaced by dialogue, and cast and orchestra were greatly reduced in strength. Paulus and company have done that and more. We have new speeches, new harmonies, new accompaniments, even virtually new numbers. “Summertime” is a duet. “It take a long pull to get there” is a male vocal quartet distending Gershwin’s pithy fisherman’s tune. Both pit and stage are substantially amplified.

There can be no such thing as a Gershwin purist. It is part of his genius that he cannot be categorized. The cultural fluidity of Porgy and Bess – of Gershwin, generally – is such that he is also interpretively fluid. Stravinsky insisted that his music should not be interpreted, whereas with Gershwin, interpretation is both necessary and irresistible. Rhapsody in Blue has no definitive score or length. The Concerto in F can be sentimental or sec, “Russian” or “French”. The first recordings of Porgy’s songs range in style from the operatic largesse of Lawrence Tibbett’s humbling “Oh Bess, oh where’s my Bess?” (1935) to Avon Long’s swinging “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” with the Leo Reisman Orchestra (1942). There will never be an “authentic” Porgy and Bess.