The Gershwins’ indestructible “Porgy and Bess,” like many masterpieces, may never receive a definitive production, and thanks in part to the ever overprotective Gershwin estate, there haven’t been many attempts. But this often-powerful telefilm may well be the closest anyone will come for a long time.
The Glyndebourne Festival in England first staged this production in 1986, a recording was made for EMI/Angel in 1988, and it traveled to the Royal Opera four years later. Rather than merely tape a stage performance, director Trevor Nunn took his conception into a film studio, using the recording as a soundtrack.
Nunn takes a few halting steps toward the freedom of movement that filmmaking can provide, effectively depicting offstage action like the jailing of one of Catfish Row’s inhabitants or the Act 2 hurricane. But this video mostly has the look and feel of a staged pro-
duction, with the camera merely roaming through the nooks and crannies of a fixed set.
Nunn’s notion of Porgy is the main point of contention. With the aid of crutches, this crippled Porgy is on his feet rather than his knees — easier on the singer’s stamina, one imagines. His cart and his goat are nowhere to be found; indeed, in the final scene, a few lines were rewritten and rerecorded for the sake of consistency.
Moreover, this Porgy isn’t terminally immobile; in the fight with Crown and in the last scene where he stumbles off in search of Bess, Porgy’s hobbling on his own power. Nunn muddles the message of overcoming one’s handicaps by substituting an unreal miracle cure. It’s like watching a Rigoletto who sheds his hump.
Yet the basic emotions of this telefilm are not bogus; it’s the real “Porgy,” packing an emotional wallop that almost, but not quite, goes over the top.
The set breathes Catfish Row, a properly cramped, overcrowded, run-down slum. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, yet the closeness breeds a trench mentality among the black residents who are beaten down but not out.
The title roles are powerfully sung by Willard White (Porgy) and Cynthia Haymon (Bess), and one can feel the sexual tension between Porgy and Bess from the beginning, making the liaison more believable than usual.
Physically imposing Gregg Baker sings Crown with the required vicious, swaggering bravado, but he also delineates Crown’s undeniable courage in the face of a deadly hurricane. Damon White’s Sportin’ Life becomes more and more a Cab Calloway impression (Gershwin, as it happens, used Cab as a model for the character), and Nunn deftly catches a look of stupefaction at the outcome of the fight between Porgy and Crown.
Simon Rattle conducts the score with an uncanny, unforced feeling for both the jazzy flourishes and the operatic sentiments; he’s the best “Porgy” conductor we’ve had since Lehman Engel more than 40 years ago.
Sharpies will notice that the cast on the soundtrack isn’t quite the same as that which appears onscreen (the roles of Clara, Jake, Robbins and Annie are different). Also, despite its three-hour-plus length, this is not a complete “Porgy”: “The Buzzard Song” is missing, as are about five gorgeous minutes of the opening of the final scene (the CD version is uncut).
As good as Nunn’s telefilm is, the cuts alone prevent it from being the last word on “Porgy.”