Fans of Porgy and Bess will be thrilled to hear that a performance of the beloved George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward-Ira Gershwin work will be telecast live from the New York City Opera this spring. The news is especially joyful in that this will almost certainly turn out to be the first fully satisfying motion picture document of a great American masterpiece.
Porgy and Bess will re-enter the City Opera repertoire on Friday, March 1, with a cast headed by Alvy Powell as Porgy, Marquita Lister as Bess, Timothy Blevins as Crown, and Dwayne Clark as Sportin' Life. These four excellent singer/actors were the leads when the show opened at NYCO last spring in a Sherwin M. Goldman production that began as a U.S. tour in 1986 and eventually reached Europe and Tokyo. According to a City Opera spokesman, the performance of Wednesday, March 20, 2001 will be telecast "Live from Lincoln Center," beginning at 8pm. (Goldman has been NYCO's executive producer since 1996.)
Both the production and these singers are superb (click here to see TheaterMania's March 17, 2000 review), so the telecast will no doubt be a godsend. Though Samuel Goldwyn's 1959 film adaptation of the opera has much to recommend it, the fact that the singing voices of stars Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge had to be dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison proved off-putting to audiences. Even more damagingly, a huge percentage of the score was cut and nearly all of the beautiful recitatives were turned into spoken dialogue. This hatchet job apparently upset the Gershwin estate so much that the rights to exhibit the film were withdrawn long ago. (What had they expected? That a major Hollywood studio would release a big-budget movie of a complete, three-hour-plus, through-sung opera?) A scratchy, deteriorated print of the Goldwyn P&B was screened a couple of years back at Brooklyn College, and I made the trek as part of a small band of the faithful. Rumor has it that the film has been restored for an eventual home video release at such time when (and if) those rights issues are worked out.
Porgy and Bess had its world premiere on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre in 1935, but George Gershwin's original intention was that it would debut at the Metropolitan Opera. As it happened, the Met didn't get around to presenting the work until its 50th anniversary year, 1985. That production might have been expected to be televised by PBS, but no such broadcast occurred--reportedly because the Gershwin estate again had reservations. (Perhaps the miscasting of Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the leads had something to do with it.)
In 1986, a new Porgy and Bess, conducted by Simon Rattle and directed by Trevor Nunn, premiered in England at Glyndebourne. That production was later seen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and subsequently recorded for television. Sadly, what might have been a definitive video turned into something of a debacle because: (1) the performers lip-synched (badly!) to an audio recording that had been made several years earlier, creating a weird sense of distance and unreality in the performances; and (2) Rattle's conducting of the gorgeous score is so willfully eccentric that it's almost impossible to enjoy Willard White as Porgy, Cynthia Haymon as Bess, Gregg Baker as Crown, or the rest of the talented company.
So news of the live telecast from City Opera is very welcome. When I saw this magnificent production last year, I raved about it in general and noted in particular the fine direction of Tazewell Thompson, the work of conductor/musical director John DeMain, and the triumph of Alvy Powell as Porgy. If you can't get to see the show at NYCO--and even if you can!--make sure to watch it and/or tape it on March 20. The program will presumably be released on VHS and DVD after the live telecast, but we should not take such things for granted.