GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess
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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess
The debate as to whether Porgy and Bess is amusical comedy or an opera has been raging ever sinceGeorge Gershwin's masterpiece made its Broadwaydebut in 1935. At that first performance it was called, infact, 'a folk opera', and the newspapers sent both theirdrama and music critics to review it. Interestinglyenough, the initial round of notices treated it morefavourably as theatre than as opera. Since that time, thependulum has swung back and forth, with variousstagings, both populist and grand, vying for the public'saffection.
The present recording, made in 1951, is a cannycompromise that brings together the best of bothworlds, which is perhaps one of the reasons it hasendured so well over the years. Goddard Lieberson ofColumbia Records was the driving force behind theproject and on this occasion, as on so many others,musical theatre fans owe him at a debt of gratitude.
Lieberson not only loved musicals, he understood howto make them come to life in a recording, even if hischanges and transpositions could come dangerouslyclose to ghost-writing on occasion. He felt the need fora first-rate, full-length recording of Gershwin's massivework, even though what emerges here is not, strictlyspeaking the 'complete' version of the show that it wasinitially advertised as. There are judicious trims andedits throughout, which considerably reduce therunning time, but the important thing is that the piece, asan entity, is presented with its artistic integrity intact.
The libretto of Porgy and Bess was written byDuBose Heyward, based on his acclaimed 1925 novel,Porgy, and the play that his wife Dorothy subsequentlyfashioned from it in 1927. Heyward was inspired by thetrue-life story of one Sammy Smalls, a crippled beggarwith a goat-cart who lived in the black tenement area ofCharleston, South Carolina known as 'Cabbage Row'.
A series of events led Smalls to commit a crime ofpassion, attempting to shoot a woman he felt hadbetrayed him. Something about the individual and thesetting inspired Heyward and before too long he hadchanged the locale to 'Catfish Row', and reinventedSmalls as Porgy.
The enormous success of the 1927 stage version ofPorgy led a variety of people to contemplate turning itinto a musical, including Al Jolson, who wanted to playthe title-r?â??le in blackface, but Heyward wisely resistedall offers until he met George Gershwin, then at thepeak of his composing career. Gershwin convincedHeyward of his desire to write 'an American opera' andpromised to remain faithful to the original milieu.
George's brother, Ira, joined in to help write thelyrics, but it took the collaborators years to finish theirpiece. When it finally opened at the Alvin Theatre on10th October, 1935, the critical response, as noted, wasmixed, and it only ran for 124 performances, impressivefor an opera, but a failure by musical comedy standards.
A series of revivals in the 1940s made the workmore of a popular success, but Lieberson and IraGershwin felt that the show's musical elements werebeing put in second place. Consequently this led to thedecision to create a recording that would not bespecifically attached to any production of the show. Itallowed Lieberson to put together a team that he feltcould serve Porgy and Bess to its best advantage.
His first choice was Lehman Engel as conductor.
The extroverted Engel was eventually to become one ofBroadway's most popular orchestra leaders of musicalcomedy, with shows like L'il Abner, Jamaica and DoRe Mi to his credit, but he actually began hisprofessional career as a composer of incidental musicfor Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and MauriceEvans's Hamlet. Perhaps most significantly, he hadconducted Harold Rome's 1946 topical revue, Call MeMister, and from that cast he tapped Lawrence Wintersto play Porgy.
Winters was born in Kings Creek, South Carolina,in 1915 and studied at Howard University with ToddDuncan, the original Porgy. After making his New Yorkdebut in Call Me Mister, he moved on to the New YorkCity Opera, where he was a member of the company atthe time of this recording. Afterwards, he spent most ofhis operatic career in Germany, returned to Broadway in1960 where he received a Tony nomination for hisperformance in The Long Dream, and finally died in1965.
Camilla Williams, Bess in the recording, was alsosinging at the New York City Opera. She was born inDanville, Virginia, in 1925 and was singing with thePhiladelphia Orchestra by the age of nineteen. Shemade her operatic debut in New York as the lead inMadama Butterfly when she was only 21. A long anddistinguished life on the concert and opera stages of theworld followed until her retirement in 1971. She thenwent on to teach until 1997 in Indiana, where she stilllives today.
The r?â??le of Sporting Life is sung by Baltimore-bornAvon Long, who was born in 1910, worked extensivelyin vaudeville and finally made his Broadway debut inthe 1936 musical, Black Rhythm. He appeared in the1942 revival of Porgy and Bess and later went on tocollaborate in numerous other musicals, the last beingthe 1976 revue, Bubbling Brown Sugar. He also won aTony for his work in the 1973 musical, Don't Play UsCheap! He died in 1984.
This combination of varied voices and talentsallowed Lieberson and Engel to create a reading ofGershwin's score which combined the energy ofmusical comedy with the vocal richness of opera. Assuch, it has never really been equalled.
As a bonus this release also features selections froma 1950 RCA-Victor recording called 'Highlights fromPorgy and Bess'. This work was intended to showcasethe talents of two stars of the Metropolitan Opera whowere enjoying great personal popularity at the time,Ris?â?½ Stevens and Robert Merrill.
Stevens was born in New York in 1913, with hereducation taking place both at Juilliard and in Vienna.
Her debut was in Prague in 1936 and she remained thereuntil 1938. She first appeared at the Met that year asMignon and from then until her retirement in 1961remained the organization's leading mezzo-soprano.
She also made several popular film appearances in TheChocolate Soldier and Going My Way. In her later yearsshe worked as an arts administrator and vocal coach.
She still lives in New York.
Merrill was also born in New York in 1917, the sonof famous concert singer Lillian Miller Merrill. Hemade his Met debut in La traviata in 1945 and sangthere for thirty years, finally retiring in 1975. He alsostarred on screen in Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick andon stage in Fiddler On the Roof. He last appeared as thehost of the TV programme Great Moments in Opera in1997.
Robert Russell Bennett, who conducted theseselections, is known primarily as one of the greatorchestrators in the history of the musical theatre. Bornin 1894, he arranged over three hundred shows in acareer that lasted until shortly before his death in 1981.
His closest collaborator was Richard Rodgers andBennett orchestrated seven of the musicals Rodgerswrote with Oscar Hammerstein II as well as the awardwinningscore for Victory At Sea.
These Highlights are of particular interest inallowing us to hear two operatic stars of over fifty yearsago (with the keys adjusted to suit their ranges)attempting to make one of the earliest 'cross-over'recordings.Richard Ouzounian