It is only January 2020 and already there are a whole slew of movies that just don’t add up to something even close to their hype. I expect mediocrity from Adam Sandler, but the excitement over his Uncut Gems could not be overlooked. I watched the movie twice… the second time getting almost 10 minutes into the thing before giving up; the first time I didn’t last that long. It is unwatchable… UNWATCHABLE.
The Irishman is being touted as the movie of the decade. In fact, it is more a series of tableaus than a motion picture. And it is over three hours in length. It’s DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci doing what they have done in so many Scorsese films that it looks like a montage of the director’s entire oeuvre. I get it. If someone were to allow me to make all the movies I cared to, they all might well be variations of Cagney & Lacey. They would certainly all feature Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly. I do, however, like to think the running times on these fantasy films of mine would be well under three hours a piece.
I could go on, although I think contractually, I am not allowed to expound on the Cagney & Lacey redux attempted by CBS. And so, I won’t.
No such restrictions apply to the New York Opera Company where I witnessed (as in train wreck, gangland shooting, car crash) the Met’s version of Porgy & Bess. Let me begin at something close to the beginning:
When I was very young (lack of specificity as to exact age since I have no desire to research exactly when it was, in the late 40s, the LA Philharmonic presented the Gershwin folk opera) my Dad took me to see what, to my young eyes, was a masterful production, with glorious voices, backed by the best musicians in all of Hollywood. Heretofore I had been brought up on Gilbert & Sullivan operettas… family lore has me singing most of the patter songs before my entrance into public school at the age of four years, eight months. Somewhere there is a recording of me singing The Mikado at age three. The point is, I was (am) into musicals and musical theatre despite being a heterosexual male. But not the opera. Too often I found it to be great music interfered with by singers who could not act and whose voices got in the way of the orchestra. Porgy & Bess is the exception. I wept that day outside the Philharmonic. Not only because of the emotion evoked by this sad tale, with its more than beautiful music, but because… I was a white kid. And I would never be able to perform in, what for me, was the apogee of any and all art forms I would ever see.
Oh, I now know it is politically very incorrect. Not only does it engage in very negative stereotypes of the American negro, but the female lead would be drummed out of any meeting Gloria Steinem attended, let alone led. It doesn’t matter. Porgy & Bess transcends all of that.
It isn’t produced very often… and even less frequently by companies with the funding to mount the show properly. Enter the Met. I flew to New York, leaving my Miami home… IN THE WINTER no less, and for no other reason than to witness something I had every reason to believe would be spectacular. OMG.
It began with the overture. The orchestra sounded thin, under rehearsed. The lead trumpet player had no lip. I was becoming anxious.
The beautifully designed curtain opened on a decent enough set, well-lit and heavily populated with the citizens of Catfish Row. Then it went downhill…. Fast. “Summertime” is one of the world’s most famous lullabies. It is a beautiful song and the gal playing Clara did a credible, if unspectacular, job. But the song has a second part… sung by the baby’s father…. “A Woman is a sometime thing” …. Couldn’t hear it. The familiar (to me, anyway) melody was there, but not the lyrics. That was to prove true for almost every low register (read Male) singer throughout the entire Opera.
In order to be heard, that vast (nearly 4,000 seat) hall requires real, world class opera singers, especially if the company insists on the conceit of not amplifying the voices, and even more so if the director stages most of the numbers upstage away from the apron, adding to the burden of anyone in the audience not reading subtitles. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem. These Met audiences are used to Operas in Italian… what difference does it make if you can’t discern the lyrics? There’s always subtitles.
Porgy, the cripple of the Opera’s title, enters. No goat drawn cart, hardly a cart at all… and what is there in the way of a cart is disposed of quickly. This Porgy has a brace on one leg and is more ambulatory than most members of the audience. Sorta works against the tale of the improbable love affair of a cripple and the town’s scarlet woman, dontcha think?
And they cut out Porgy’s “Buzzard” song. Why? Well, maybe they figured no one could hear it anyway and the song does require at least a lighting effect, so what the heck…who’ll know? Just cut it. Buzzard, keep on flyin’…
It just went on that way… A Bess in middle age, as non-menacing a Crown as I have ever seen. I would hang on for the finale. It is pretty much sure fire/can’t miss stuff. And while I waited in my incredibly comfortable chair…. I mean, hold on… you’ve gotta give it to those Opera supporters… they might not know much about English language theatre, but they sure know how to keep their asses comfortable. If the Broadway crowd ever thought seats such as these were possible, they would make a hit out of any show providing them.
The ending was coming up… one of the most poignant scenes I have ever witnessed… in any theatre… Porgy, the cripple, returns (from his tussle with the authorities) to an empty shack… Oh Bess, Oh where’s my Bess? He sings. Only this Porgy is on his feet, flanked by two sopranos, singing contrapuntal chuffa, that drowns out this voice-challenged “singer.” I don’t care what she’s done, won’t somebody tell me where’s my Bess? Bess…. He cries out like a wounded animal.
Oh Lord in your big heaven, please tell me where I must go. Oh, give me the strength, show me the way (a dramatic seven orchestral notes and then, with the great power of his love for Bess, his chest swells as he confronts his one-time friends/neighbors): Tell me the truth, where is she? Where is my gal, where is my Bess?
They confess she has gone with the drug dealing Sportin’ Life to far off New York City. Porgy is resolute. The die is cast as he begins his seemingly impossible trek north: Oh, Lord, I’m on my way…. He must find his Bess. I know, it’s a long, long road, but you’ll be there to take my hand.
Used to be, as the music crescendos, Porgy would exit on a cart pulled by a goat. There should not be a dry eye in the house… at least that’s the way it was conceived by America’s greatest composer. But it ain’t necessarily so… for in this production he’s walking. He might as well have someone call him a cab. Not even Gershwin can overcome this director, this orchestra, those baritones.
This January start does not auger well for 2020.