"Porgy and Bess", by George Gershwin, is –no doubt about it- the greatest opera ever composed by a United States composer. That a first-generation American whose parents were Jews from Odessa understood idiomatically the mores, music and sensibilities of the black people Down South is almost a miracle. Add to it his genius (the only authentically first-rate crossover composer of the Twentieth Century) and his solid technique (to boot he also became a splendid and very personal orchestrator) and you understand why "Porgy and Bess" , his only opera although he wrote many admirable musicals, is absolutely indispensable.
It is also one of the most difficult operas to keep in the repertoire, unless...it´s a black company. For this is the "sine qua non" condition: only black voices can do justice to music that was thought especially for them. The timbre, the inflexions, the body language, just don´t work unless you have black artists on stage.
I was very lucky with "Porgy...". In my first batch of LPs back in 1952 (I was 13) I received an album with a selection of "Porgy..." by the original cast conducted by Alexander Smallens. I then knew that the first complete recording had been made, led by Lehman Engel, and I got it some months later. And then came the surprise: in 1955 Everyman Opera, a black company led by Smallens, premièred the opera here at the Astral Theatre; seeing it on stage gave me the extra dimension I needed to convince myself of the stature of this opera.
A long wait for a revival followed, until Sergio Renán brought the Virginia Opera Company in 1992 to the Colón with an interesting "Porgy...", of course fully staged and with a black company. After that, silence. The wait was tempered by acquiring a marvelous 1989 CD interpretation conducted by Simon Rattle, certainly the best.
Last year I was happy to review an unexpected première: Scott Joplin´s "Treemonisha", written much earlier than "Porgy..." (respectively, 1915 and 1935); a vocational group staged it in blackface, emulating Al Jolson. But both were preceded by Frederick Delius´ valuable "Koanga", a Florida story (the composer was a plantation owner, by the way), dated 1904 (I hardly believe that it will be premièred here). So there are other black operas (I didn´t name them all) but "Porgy..." reigns.
Twenty-two years after the 1992 performances it is high time to see again a black staged version, but it´s very costly: you have to bring over a black company from the States. I have long liked the people of the Ensamble Lírico Orquestal, especially the leading couple, conductor Gustavo Codina and soprano (and coordinator) Cecilia Layseca. They are enthusiastic and enterprising and have managed to keep on with their projects almost by themselves, mostly with good results. But I think that this time they bit the wrong apple.
The title of this article says it: "white, unstaged and condensed"; such conditions mean that this "Porgy..." can only be a stopgap; we need the real thing. And there is a decision by Codina that I contest: he made his own (well done) jazzy arrangement of the original (for jazz band, the hand programme says); why, if he has his Agrupación Sinfónica de Morón presumably available? And why include two almost inaudible violins? The other instruments were well chosen: 2 saxophones, 1 flute, 2 clarinets, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass, piano and percussion. Fourteen in total.
They played rather well and Codina knows how to swing as conductor. He also led an uneven but eager Coral Ensemble Adultos prepared by Layseca.
They had a bad break: the supertitles system broke down; Layseca did her best to convey the sense of the selected numbers, but of course it wasn´t the same for the audience.
They selected 18 pieces, including all the best known, of course. Taking as a guide the Rattle recording, this amounts to 70 minutes, reasonable for a vocal concert; but the opera really lasts three hours and ten minutes. It didn´t help that a couple of numbers were out of the right order.
The singers had a Mission Impossible. The two that were closer to the mark were Lídice Robinson, who is from Ecuador and sang Serena´s moving "My man´s gone now", and Juan Salvador Trupia hit with his strong voice and demeanor the right style for Crown, the brutish stevedore that seduces Bess. Mario de Salvo (Porgy), Andrea Maragno (Bess), Layseca (Clara) and Clodomiro Forn y Puig (Jake) tried hard and are good professionals, but this is not for them. And Marcos Padilla was far from the particular very popular style of Sportin´ Life, who induces Bess to become a drug addict and sings the famous "It ain´t necessarily so".
All in all, a brave effort well received by the audience. But...
For Buenos Aires Herald