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50th Anniversary Icon : Met's 'Porgy' Goes Respectable

February 27, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

NEW YORK — Porgy, the crippled beggar with the goat cart from Catfish Row, is putting on the Ritz.

Bess, the floozie with a heart of gold and a yen for happy dust, is acting like a well-padded diva. Sportin' Life, who used to scat-sing with a whining Cab Calloway falsetto while slinking like a jivey snake, has become a full-throated, high-flying, operatic tenor.

Fifty years after its Broadway premiere, "Porgy and Bess" has gone respectable. George Gershwin's opera has finally come to the Met.

It has come, and not a moment too soon, bearing the heavy burden of reverence.

This may not be the most touching "Porgy" ever seen, or the most energetic or the most flavorsome. But it certainly is the longest, the heaviest and the grandest.

This is a "Porgy" awed by a house with 4,000 seats, clouds of chandeliers and a golden horseshoe. This is a "Porgy" in which the gospel of Serena's funereal lament is greeted with push-button "bravas." This is a leisurely "Porgy" that begins at 8 and ends at midnight, a "Porgy" that restores every note ever cut and favors the original recitatives over the often-superimposed dialogue.

In accordance with the dictates of the Gershwin estate, the Met has engaged an all-black cast and an all-black chorus, though the resident white folks still run the show and staff the pit. Many of the recruits on the stage are distinguished veterans of recent "Porgy" wars in Houston and at, horror of amplified horrors, the Radio City Music Hall. These people know how and when to be serious and how and when to be funky. They restrain the funk, however, at Lincoln Center.

The problem is simple. The Met, for all its lofty and loyal intentions, seems to be confusing "Porgy" with "Parsifal."

By playing the opera uncut, the company may respect Gershwin's initial ideas. But it also exposes lots of busymusic, lots of padding, lots of repetition, lots of cumbersome filler between the great songs.

By dressing the accompaniment in massive symphonic brilliance, the company exposes the weaknesses of the orchestration and, worse, blankets even the healthiest voices.

By having everyone perform beautifully--with a capital B--at all times, the company exaggerates the rift between the show-biz diversions in the score and the serious dramatic elements.

It didn't have to be this way. At 50, "Porgy" deserves the benefit of fresh interpretive viewpoints, not blind piety. The opera deserves to be treated as vital musical theater, not as a sacred icon.

The Met has given us a lavish, handsome, stuffy period piece. Nathaniel Merrill has staged it with an eye for the safety of convention, no matter how stodgy, plodding or phony. Robert O'Hearn has decorated both the characters and the locales as if his only responsibility were the restoration of quaint and pretty pictures. Arthur Mitchell has interpolated dance routines that staunchly resist integration with the action.

In the pit, James Levine enforces spic-and-span clarity as well as good old-fashioned opera-house bombast. But he tends to move slowly.

Under the circumstances, one couldn't be too surprised that the protagonists had trouble asserting themselves properly Monday night.

Simon Estes sang Porgy with the most fervent and mellifluous of baritones and acted the strenuous role with simplicity and sincerity. Yet he left one wanting to applaud rather than cry.

Grace Bumbry as his rather blowzy Bess provided minimal erotic allure and sympathy, and, incidentally, destroyed dramatic logic by exercising the prima donna's prerogative to change costumes for every scene. She did sing with becoming freedom and ardor, however, and she won many hearts with shimmering pianissimo tones at the end of the love duet ("Goodbye, Porgy. . . ") and the reprise of "Summertime."

Charles Williams' mercurial, nimble Sportin' Life exuded little insinuation and less menace. Gregg Baker, however, made a formidable hulk of Crown.

Most of the others in the huge ensemble succumbed to blandness. Myra Merritt as Clara sang "Summertime" tremulously. Barbara Conrad, herself an erstwhile Bess, found the earthy-contralto extroversion of Maria a strain. Florence Quivar as Serena lacked the requisite power for the heart-rending climactic glissandi of "My Man's Gone Now." Isola Jones tried desperately, and almost successfully, to turn the sweet cries of the strawberry woman into a sexy tour de force. The most memorable singing came from the chorus.

Some New Yorkers think this "Porgy" does belated honor to a masterpiece. It ain't necessarily so.

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