Jan 31, 2012

Missing the Boat

When faced with the choice to save her lover by submitting sexually to his torturer, Tosca sings "Vissi d'arte." When Billy Bigelow is faced with the daunting prospect of being a father, he gets an eight-minute "Soliloquy."

But when Bess is faced, in the first act of Porgy and Bess, with the choice of shacking up with Porgy while her lover Crown evades a murder rap, she doesn't get an aria. The same thing happens, or fails to happen, in the second act, after Sportin' Life dangles a trip to New York, along with some "happy dust," in front of her; there's no song to dramatize our heroine's decision point here, either. At this point in the new Broadway-ized version of the show, arranger Diedre L. Murray gives Audra McDonald, as Bess, a few eerily reharmonized lines of Sportin' Life's pitch, "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York," as she equivocates over a drug relapse. A quick sniff later, and she's off to the big city.

I'm not sure why the Gershwins and their librettist, DuBose Heyward, didn't give Bess arias at these obvious story points, but it's hard to escape the suspicion that they just didn't think of their two leads as equals, in the way McDonald and this new revisal's director, Diane Paulus, do. As Paulus told the Times, her "only agenda with the Gershwin opera was 'to make sure that we had a story that lived up to its title.' With emphasis on the conjunction, she continued, 'Porgy and Bess. Porgy and Bess.' "

Alas, it seems, the story doesn't live up to that title, and no amount of tinkering can change that. But if Bess' role is under-dramatized, the picture isn't much fuller for Porgy, who gets essentially one solo burst of joy, "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," and then two back-to-back cries of the heart at the very end, when he resolves to leave in search of Bess ("Where's My Bess" and "I'm on My Way").

While I have little interest in wading into the persistent controversy over the opera's alleged racial insensitivity, I think one reason the piece continues to seem suspect to some folks is this under-dramatization of the titular leads, as if they weren't quite worthy of rich, conflicted interior lives. Indeed, the defining moments in the opera (with two big exceptions, which I'll get to) are community numbers: "My Man's Gone Now," "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," "Summertime," the Catfish Row seller's sequence, the fishermen's song, "I Can't Sit Down," etc. And as accomplished as these are ("My Man's Gone Now" in particular is masterful, though not so much in the current Broadway production), they make the work feel more like a pageant of black life than a fully characterized drama about specific individuals. That kind of sympathetic but arm's-length view, while arguably a valid approach for writers depicting a community that's not their own, can hover dangerously close to condescension. And in the wrong directorial hands, the result can indeed look like minstrelsy. (But in the right hands, as Joe Nocera reminds us, the community chorales can be the glue that holds the piece together.)

Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks' approach to this challenge—essentially, to strip back the pageantry and ground the acting in a kind of stark naturalism—is fine as far as it goes, but of course it can't go very far with a piece that was conceived more in medium shot than in close-up. The result is a watchable Porgy and Bess, in large part because of the lead actors, but fundamentally a dull one. For all all the alleged violence its vaunted revisionism does to the original opera, the show actually feels overly reverent.

Ah, but the reason to do P&B is the music, right? Well, that's another problem. Some scores can survive downsizing, but perhaps it's a tribute to the George Gershwin's operatic ambition that his score seems to limp along in this chamber-ized version. The show's crowning achievement, the love duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," is a rich, soaring harmonic feast (I would entertain seriously the idea that it's the best thing he ever did), but its extraordinary lift and reach can't be realized, it seems, with anything less than the full orchestration.

The only moment that pierces the production's polite torpor comes with the lesser but still great follow-up duet, "I Loves You, Porgy," in which the production's intensely naturalistic approach pays off in spades; I've never heard this song sound quite so desperate and provisional ("If you can keep me/I wants to stay here"). Lacking a great aria of her own, this is McDonald's most thrilling connection with the material, and Norm Lewis—a mild, genial Porgy for most of the show—matches her fervor note for note.

I should add that the mostly older audience I saw the show with seemed to love it, and I can only hope they've heard the score before and were filling in the missing orchestral colors in their minds (as I was). While I don't quite believe that this new Porgy and Bess does any damage to the original—it hasn't been erased from the culture's hard drive, last time I checked—one sense in which I sadly agree with the show's detractors is that it's a really unfortunate way to be introduced to the manifold glories of Gershwin's score. I doubt that the opera's dramatic deficits can (or really need to be) solved, but in putting its focus there, this new P&B misses the main reason it's worth reviving.

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