Only Americans know how to stage George Gershwin's fragile but inevitably poignant "Porgy and Bess." Only Americans can understand the folksy conflicts of Catfish Row, not to mention the inherent jazz-inflected idiom.
It ain't necessarily so.
In recent years, we have encountered lots of "Porgy and Bess" productions that were made in the good old U.S.A. Most were dubious at worst, problematic at best.
Broadway has repeatedly treated this essentially serious piece as if it were just a sprawling entertainment with music. Our own Civic Light Opera mistook it for a splashy show-biz extravaganza. Hollywood turned it into a pretty-pretty series of sanitized star turns. The mighty Met all but crushed poor "Porgy" under the weight of grand-opera manners and mannerisms.
The not-so-mighty Houston Opera did better with various editions of a sensitive version devised by Jack O'Brien. But its integrity was a sometime thing, compromised by uneven casting and, worse, electronic distortion.
Tonight--with a lot of help from the BBC, the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex and Covent Garden in London--"Porgy and Bess" comes at last to American television. It comes to us as a joint project of "American Playhouse" (even though the source, if not the cast, is eminently un-American) and "Great Performances" (for once, the hyperbolic adjective seems nearly appropriate).
It comes, moreover, with the official approval of the Gershwin estate, in a discerning 3 1/2-hour film that dares take the opera seriously on its own lofty terms. (The telecast starts at 7 on KVCR-TV Channel 24, at 8 on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15.)
Did I say opera? The publicity for the telecast steadfastly avoids that dirty noun. Opera doesn't help much at the ratings game. The press releases refer only to a "musical classic."
No matter. An opera is an opera is an opera, and "Porgy" is a very good opera. It is especially good as presented by a pair of inspired Britons: the conductor Simon Rattle and the director Trevor Nunn.
Rattle and Nunn enjoyed the obvious advantage of approaching the challenge without too many preconceptions. They were unencumbered, as it were, with the barnacles of tradition.
For Rattle, that meant the discovery of lyricism beneath the drama. It meant slowly savoring details of textual and musical nuance often taken for granted, or even ignored, by our own conductors.
It also meant manipulating the central singers, choral and orchestral masses with virtually unprecedented degrees of flexibility and finesse. Most important, perhaps, it meant doing all this without slighting the gutsy core of the score.
For Nunn--the glitzy mastermind of "Cats," "Starlight Express" and "Les Miserables" and incipient traffic cop at "Sunset Boulevard"--"Porgy" represented an exercise in delicately focused restraint. Aiming for gritty realism, he avoided the trap of melodramatic cliche as well as the temptation of sentimental overkill.
Sportin' Life, the friendly if cynical dope peddler, emerges here as an easily intimidated charmer. No Cab Calloway imitations allowed. Bess is much more than the usual hussy with the heart of pewter. Maria, Everyman's neighbor, is too troubled by the pain around her to impersonate a comic battle-ax.
Most important, Porgy, described in the libretto as a "crippled beggar," moves about in obvious pain that never diminishes his dignity. In place of the picturesque goat cart dictated by the text, Nunn gives him awkward crutches, which he ultimately tosses aside as he staggers on his way "to the Heav'nly Lan.' " It all makes sense.
The large cast serves both musical and theatrical masters appreciatively. Willard White exudes quiet strength as Porgy, and though he avoids some of the conventional high climaxes, his basso exudes constant fervor. Cynthia Haymon is a radiant, introspective Bess (it will be difficult to forget the shimmering caress of her "Goodbye, Porgy").
Gregg Baker personifies baritonal bravado as Crown, and his washboard chest remains in fine fettle. Damon Evans, remembered as young Lionel in "The Jeffersons," is a dapper, full-throated Sportin' Life touched with a nimble stroke of whimsy. Paula Ingram as Clara mouths the words of "Summertime" sweetly while Harolyn Blackwell sings them just as sweetly on the soundtrack. Cynthia Clarey is the sympathetic Serena, Marietta Simpson the properly maternal Maria.
Is everything ideal? Not quite.
Everyone is required to lip-sync to the EMI recording. Although this takes an inevitable toll in spontaneity and credibility, one gets used to it. The studio sets, based on John Gunter's Glyndebourne designs, demand a certain suspension of disbelief. The omission of Porgy's "Buzzard Song" creates an emotional gap (Maria's "Strutting Style" would have seemed more readily expendable). The British actors cast as white Southerners speak in strange accents.
Never mind. This "Porgy" is treated, for the most part, with enlightened care. The text, not incidentally, is projected with telling clarity, without the aid of a single sub- or supertitle. It can be done.
The livin' is easy.