Some context (and spoilers):
On the surface, Porgy and Bess is a story that revolves around Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess, a woman who’s being fought over by different men. The opera is divided into three acts: the first act introduces the characters and initiates the relationship between Porgy and Bess (her partner Crown kills a man and has to disappear); the second act explores Porgy and Bess’ romance and Porgy’s devotion to Bess; the third act stages the fight between Crown and Porgy over Bess. In the resolution, Bess follows Sporting Life, a smooth talking drug dealer, to New York after Porgy is taken in by the police after killing Crown.
Saturday’s Porgy and Bess performance was certainly interesting. The four hour show is described as an “opera in concert.” Opera turned concert? Opera cum concert? The terminology’s a little confusing but the point is clear: the focus is more on the music and less on the acting. Rightfully so, the stage was stripped of any props, costumes (the gambling scene felt more like a socialite gathering rather than a men’s night), and any real action. Crown and Robbin’s “fight” was “played” out by the full blown orchestra surrounding the puny stage, while the actors stood their waiting to sing their next pieces. I’m not complaining though. Being familiar with covers of some of the songs, I was very pleasantly surprised to listen to the original versions sung by powerful, masterful leads.
Analogy wise, it’s similar to seeing a friend in front of his/her parents for the first time. It’s different. It’s definitely not as “fun” but there’s a certain sense of elegance and sophistication you’re gauging from this “new” fellow. Or think of mac and cheese served with truffles and caviar, plated in porcelain. It’s an old comfort dish, served differently. Not bad, just different.
Before listening to Clara’s official rendition of Summertime, a lullaby for her baby in Porgy and Bess, I only knew (and loved) Al Jarreau’s carefree, springy version of it, from his album “Tenderness.” I never knew the haunting “Summertime” original, sung by the amazing Janai Brugger, was meant to foreshadow death and loss in the play.
My overall favorite song has to be Sporting Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” When I listened to the piece for the first time before the opera, I was preparing for a hellish ABRSM piano exam. This, of course, meant that I was force-fed music that was stripped of its lyrics and taken out of its context, over and over again. So yes, I hated the song. I didn’t understand why it didn’t sound as good as other jazz pieces (easy answer: my piano was out of tune and I could never play it right) and I hated the abrupt, awkward sounding choruses. But coming out of the concert, I remembered only one character, Sportin Life, for the rest of the night because of that song. Chauncey Packer’s rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” gave me shivers. His wholesome, cascading tenor voice molded Sportin Life as a professional, more of a magnetic entrepreneur rather than a greasy con-man, as some actors might portray him. Unlike the empty piano cover I played for an exam, the original version was meaningful: the lyrics gave it context and the singer gave it character. We see Sporting Life embodied in the song: foul-mouthed and “corrupted” at heart, but wrapped by a hypnotic, charismatic cover.
I also enjoyed listening to the other Gershwin compositions. Some notable ones include the sonorous, earthy “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There” sung by Reginald Smith Jr.’s Jake the Fisherman and the soulful, gospel-esque “Oh Doctor Jesus” sung by Karen Slack, Morris Robinson, Dorian Dillard II, and Lenora Green-Turner as Serena, Porgy, Peter, and Lily. I’m definitely including these songs in my playlist.
All in all, the Gershwin Initiative’s test performance for Porgy and Bess was an exciting musical adventure to witness.