San Francisco Opera's Porgy and Bess delivers on every level. The singers are excellent, the chorus is brilliant, the orchestra sounded great during Friday night's performance. The stage direction, sets and choreography all come together in a production that is the most satisfying thing to hit the War Memorial stage since 2007's Der Rosenkavalier. I have qualms with the opera itself, but I'll get to that after I pass out the well-deserved kudos.
The chorus for this production is simply a marvel. I don't know how it was assembled or by whom, but I sense there's a pretty interesting story behind it that's worth telling. I hope chorus director Ian Robertson incorporates many of these new voices and faces into the fold for future productions, especially if the company decides to mount Nabucco, La Damnation de Faust or any other work requiring choral heavy-lifting any time in the near future. Their contributions to the funeral and storm scenes were especially terrific.
There's a bit of historical debate about whether or not Porgy and Bess is actually an opera and that I think that debate misses the point. Yes, it's most definitely opera. However, I'll raise the issue/ question of whether or not it's a great, or even good, opera.
Of course it has great tunes- "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and so forth, that have justifiably become standards of the American songbook. There's nothing to debate about the musical abilities of the Gershwin brothers and Porgy certainly has an abundance of fantastic moments in the score for both the voices and the orchestra- some reminiscent of Puccini, many references to "Rhapsody in Blue" and hearing the work performed live one notices the unmistakable debt Bernstein's West Side Story owes to this work.
But as musical drama it is way too long, even though SFO's production contains cuts. For the entire first hour there is almost no characterization of the leads, just a series of set pieces depicting life on Catfish Row. The set pieces return at inopportune times, i.e. the crab monger, disrupting the pacing of the relationship between Porgy and Bess to the point where one wonders if the story is about these two or are they just two focal points in the seething mass of life flowing around them? The opera itself could almost be titled "Life on Catfish Row." One could argue that the surrounding community is as much an influence on these two lovers as anything that transpires directly between them or what they bring to the relationship as individuals (Bess's drug addiction and sense of longing, Porgy's crippleness and resolute spirit). Operas with similar issues are too numerous to count, including many, if not all, of Handel's works and Cavalleria Rusticana, which takes more than an hour to tell its ten-minute story, complete with interludes.
But no one claims these as the greatest works of their time (well, many would say just that about Handel and I can see the justification) or that they are supreme representations of the culture from which they emerged. The paucity of American operas, quality aside, from any era, doesn't justify claiming Porgy to be a masterpiece of the form, especially if one insists on commenting on its American character. If it were cut in half and told one story rather than two, then indeed, Porgy may have been the masterpiece many claim it to be. As it is, I think it's work of great, vibrant music with some stirring dramatic moments, but I don't think it deserves the encomiums currently being heaped upon it.
Which brings me to the well-trod subject of race, stereotypes and Porgy and Bess. Although I've read many interviews and comments of late saying we as a culture are "past" the point of seeing (or at least being overly-concerned about) negative stereotypes present in the work, or at least focusing on them instead of the music, I guess I haven't moved forward in my own personal evolution to dismiss the subject entirely. If the opera didn't contain the plot bifurcation between the lovers and the surrounding community, this likely would not be an issue- but since that's not the case, the issue remains, and there is one point in SFO's production where I felt is was acutely on display- the depiction of Sportin' Life. In an otherwise well directed production that makes excellent choices at nearly every opportunity, this character's representation was troublesome to me.
Whether or not the shuck-and-jive, extremely flashy suit, exaggerated Bojangles dance moves are accurate to the libretto or to Gershwin's stated directions are unknown to me, but I thought this character could have been handled with greater sophistication. While I can understand the truthfulness of the portrayal to the times- I live in the Tenderloin and see the contemporary manifestation of this parasite every day, as rendered here he's somewhat of a cross between Huggy-Bear and the heart-breaking singers and dancers who fill the final montage in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled." Sadly, it left me feeling like I was watching a minstrel show during certain segments, though I don't mean to detract from the very high quality of Chauncey Packer's performance- I just think this was the one noteworthy miscue on Francesca Zambello's part.
Regardless, it's terrific musical theater and I highly recommend going to see it if you can. Kudos to SFO for having the remaining run sold-out. Maybe another couple of shows could be added to satisfy the demand for tickets?