Tuesday, June 21 was a very special night for American opera. For the first time in its history, George Gerhshwin's Porgy and Bess was performed, complete, in a major American opera house. The gold fringes of the San Francisco War Memorial's curtain hanging over Catfish Row was a sight that brought tears of joy to many in the auidience. Up until now, Porgy has been cut, butchered, and scaled down to Broadway houses and audiences. In that version it has even been mounted at some German opera houses, but never in the United States, where it was written. Last year, the Houston Grand Opera mounted a stunning production the way Gershwin wrote the opera, and it has since been playing to capacity audiences in New York, Boston, Cleveland, and other cities. Only when it reached San Francisco did it finally end up where it belongs, on the stage of an opera house in Gershwin's native country.
With the cuts restored and the full orchstrations, Porgy is a knockout of an evening. Gershwin's score has an abundance of genius and not just the old standards we have come to love such as "Summertime," "I Got Plenty of Nuttin," and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." There are quiet moments, gems like the Strawberry Woman's song, or "How Are You This Morning," and many musical throwaways that glow with the brilliance of Gershwin's pen.
Smartly enough, Houston decided to treat the cast as one would the singers in any major opera. Therefore, there are three sets of singers rotating in the principal roles. I was lucky to see two of the casts, which helped to show the opera in different lights and underline its varying strengths. When performed complete, Porgy is a long evening, three solid hours with only one intermission. The physical demands on the role of Porgy alone are like trying to sing Siegfried in full hospital traction; it is no easy task. With the complete text, the characters assume greater depth. Bess becomes a far more complex lady, requiring a skilled singing actress for the part. Sportin' Life assumes a pivotal role in the life on Catfish Row. To ask singers to do eight performances a week would do irreparable damage to their voices.
On opening night the house was primed with excitement and the cast responded enthusiastically, almost givintg more than they should have. Wilhelmenia Fernandez was a fiery Bess, a lady of panther-like sexuality who knows how to strut her stuff. Under the strong direction of Jack O'Brien, the production was far more realistic than previous ones I have seen. After a couple of hits of "happy dust," when Bess ran off to New York with Sportin' Life, we witnessed a lady who was noticeably ripped to the tits on cocaine. Robert Mosley's Porgy was a full portrayal of the characters, most sympathetically sung. Anrew Smith as Crown brought out a much more sadistic and domineering facet of his relationship with Bess than I had remembered. His acting was a little bit stiff, but he sang withi fullness and was believable as the villain.
A week later I went back to catch another performance, at which time the principals paced themselves more carefully. Bess was sung by Naomi Moody, a handsome woman with a powerful voice. Her acting was a little sleazier in the beginning, a more sullen Bess, having lost some of the fire after too many men. As Crown, George Robert Merritt was a great foil, underlinig Bess's weakness to the touch of a hot man. At the second performance the men in the cast fared much better. Michael Smartt's Porgy was well sung and intensely acted.
It was the first time I had seen a Porgy who was young, lean, and full of life; a man the audienc e would genuinely love rather than pity. His departure for New York, "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way," was deeply moving.
At both performances Sportin' Life was played by Larry Marshall, who gets top honors for a fine performance. In most productions, the role of Sportin' Life is cut to shreds, leaving his two big numbers, "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Dere's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York." In the uncut version he becomes a focal point of the action, and one sees him more as the slimy local pusher; always handy with the wipeout stuff and always available for some dirty work. Mr. Marshall handled the role magnificently, dancing and moving with the ease of a snake and had the best vocal projection of the cast.
After San Francisco, Porgy and Bess heads for the Kennedy Center in Washington and then a European tour. I hope to God it returns to the Bay area. In its full operatic dimensions, undiluted to fit Broadway tastes, the Gershwin score is overwhelming. It is also an evening of fabulous theater -- a microcosm of life and death on Catfish Row. There can be no doubt as to Gershwin's innate theaterical sensitivity.
As the Strawberry Woman sings, "It's so ripe and fine." I'll take it over Forza any day!
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 7, 1978.