The Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday performance of Porgy and Bess testified to the Herculean efforts of guest conductor John Mauceri and his collaborators to reconstruct the score of Gershwin’s original 1935 production. The stage of Jackson Hall nearly overflowed with a full chorus, an expanded orchestra and a complete cast in which only a few roles were doubled. Should this production become definitive after the forthcoming recording of it by the symphony and cast, nearly all of the components are in place to make it a full opera. It would mainly be a matter of enhancing the staging and costumes, since the musical and core dramatic elements have been worked out to perfection.
But for all its precise historical reconstruction, this premiere version of the pioneering American folk opera raised a number of questions. While it admirably upholds the trend of the last two decades of returning the recitative and other operatic qualities to the work, the performers’ respect for Gershwin’s intentions in his text produces changes that mainly would be appreciated by artists rather than audience members. True, the working text—demanding nearly two-and-a-half hours to perform—is somewhat more streamlined than Gershwin’s original. And there are a couple of minor stage devices in the manuscript score that, while not at all dated, are more important as moments in theatrical history than as aesthetic improvements. What last weekend’s performance helped ask, then, is whether one can and should go home again.
Porgy has a long, varied performance record that’s wedded to the styles and developments of musical theater of the last 70 years. Any attempt to shake off the immense weight of this cumulative history is likely to make the directors of an “authoritative” version look like strict constructionists. Ironically, what made the NSO’s production fresh was the diversity of performing styles among the cast members. Perhaps the directors could also have reconstructed the period vocal styles of the original cast, but issues like these are exactly what shouldn’t haunt current productions.
The intergenerational differences between the Porgy of Alvy Powell, who’s played the role more than 1,200 times, and Robert Mack’s Sporting Life, couldn’t have been more pronounced. Powell conveyed the gravity of a Paul Robeson singing in a bass baritone and effected seamless transitions between the show tune bounciness and high operatic pathos of the score. As one of Porgy’s foils, Mack made the seductive dope dealer Sporting Life come off like an impish Chris Rock and delivered his showstopper, the mock-sermon “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” as if he’d studied every outré R&B performer since Prince.