Critics Discuss "Porgy and Bess"

George Gershwin
Ben Brantley, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, and Anthony Tommasini, The Times's chief classical music critic, discuss the new musical production, “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," based on the 1935 opera, and respond to readers' comments below.

In a stark setting, and even when not in red, Audra McDonald is the compelling center of “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."

ANTHONY TOMMASINI: As I tried to make clear when I wrote about the new adaptation of “Porgy and Bess," I am very invested in the piece in its original form as an opera, a great, original and moving, if not flawless, opera from 1935. Ben: You reviewed the new musical “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," but what is your experience with the original opera? From your perspective as a theater critic, how does the opera “Porgy and Bess" work as theater?

BEN BRANTLEY: My experience of “Porgy and Bess" as an opera is considerably more scattershot than yours, though I have immense affection for the piece. My first exposure to it was as a record when I was a kid (the one with Leontyne Price for RCA, I think) and a touring production whose provenance I can't remember. I saw Trevor Nunn's 2007 production of “Porgy" as a musical in London, where it was much dressier than Diane Paulus's version, but similarly scaled down, with a cast of singing actors rather than vice-versa. I have seen “Porgy" as a fully-staged opera (sort of) only once, at Radio City Music Hall in the early 1980s. Like you, I am a fan of the Simon Rattle recording (from the Glyndebourne Festival in England in 1988), and listen it to often.

That recording is a sort of aural backdrop for any version of “Porgy and Bess" I encounter now, though I try to erase it as much as possible when seeing a new incarnation. I think, though, that even if I had no previous knowledge of “Porgy and Bess," I might have sensed a certain absence in Diane Paulus's interpretation. Part of that comes from the splendor of Audra McDonald's passionately sung performance, which makes you aware of what you're missing elsewhere in the production. That was certainly felt by the person I took to the show, who had never seen “Porgy" before and said to me afterwards, of the spoken dialogue, “It seems like it's asking to be sung doesn't it?"

The first requisite of any work of art—theater, opera, a novel—is that it create a universe that is complete and consistent unto and within itself. And I didn't feel that with the current Broadway production of “Porgy," though it's smooth enough, and easy to follow. The stripped-down set begs for an elemental, timeless interpretation by the performers that the hybrid of music and dialogue doesn't allow. An editor of mine mentioned that it had seemed “taped-together" to him, and compared it to a drastically abridged “Anna Karenina," with connecting passages of plot summary. It's a valid analogy, I think.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of the opera “La Boheme" in 2002. I can see how an opera purist might have been put off by it—especially, the artificial amplification. But the (spectacular) design and the (mostly organic) acting in that all seemed in sync with the lushness of the music. And, yes, I cried each of the three times I saw it. Tears are the acid test for me with opera—and often with musicals, even cheerful ones. And though Ms. McDonald caused me to mist up a couple of times, I mostly remained dry-eyed at this “Porgy."

TOMMASINI: Ben, as you may remember, I didn't like Baz Luhrmann's “Boheme" as much as you did, mostly because I was so bothered by the amplification and the scrawny orchestra. Also, I thought too much was being made of casting the opera with young, sexy singers who looked like the bohemian characters that the opera presents. I've seen lots of young casts in “Boheme" at conservatories and such. Still, it was an inventive, colorful and vibrant show. And, if I remember, it was performed uncut, or maybe with tiny trims. So, the narrative/musical flow was intact.

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