The scene was ultrafamiliar: Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C. Americans have been seeing it for a half-century in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." But tonight, the scene also seemed unfamiliar, because Catfish Row had been set up on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in the century-old company's history.
Tonight, after a half-century of waiting, America's most famous opera finally reached the stage of America's most famous opera company. It was welcomed by a standing-room audience (the first of 16 to which it will play this season) and it received a standing ovation -- a kind of tribute that is not given at the Met nearly as often as at the Kennedy Center.
Grace Bumbry, who sang the title role, had at least a dozen bouquets thrown from the audience at the final curtain call, and the chorus (which was not at all the usual Metropolitan Opera Chorus, but enormously impressive) received several minutes of hard-earned applause before the soloists came on for their bows. Most of the faces in the Metropolitan Opera's first production of "Porgy and Bess" were unfamiliar to Met audiences, but it was a vintage Met production, marked with the lavish devotion to quality and the meticulous attention to small details that are a hallmark of this company at its best.
The opening night of a new operatic production is seldom the best performance of its run, and tonight's "Porgy" will undoubtedly improve in later performances, particularly in Act 1. But from the beginning, it sets a new standard for productions of this opera. Logistic problems make it unlikely that the Met will be able to take this show on the road. It would mean adding about 100 performers -- the equivalent of a second company -- to its regular touring roster. But it should be televised, and it might be possible to send it out as an independent touring company with a broader itinerary than the regular Met tour.
An idea of the quality of this production can be had by running an eye down through the cast to the 21st name on the list. It is Isola Jones, a great mezzo-soprano who is singing eight roles at the Met this season. She is cast as the strawberry woman, a street vendor who has nothing to do with the story but has a beautiful melody to sing. Her solo takes less than two minutes, but they are two minutes of perfection.
Above her on the list are two of the great voices of our time, Bumbry and bass Simon Estes, as well as such respected Met regulars as Florence Quivar, Barbara Conrad and Myra Merritt, all giving excellent performances. In addition, there are 11 solo singers who gave their first performances at the Met tonight.
Also making his Met debut in this production is Arthur Merrill, founder and director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, as choreographer and special consultant to the production. His impact is considerable, not only in the numerous and superb dance numbers (performed by members of his company) but also in the carefully worked-out body movements of many scenes -- notably the fights in Acts 1 and 3 and the body language of such numbers as "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York." It is a visually striking production, not only because of Nathaniel Merrill's stage direction and Robert O'Hearn's sets and costumes, but particularly for the carefully controlled body movements of its climactic moments when stage action borders on dance.
In spite of her dozen bouquets, Bumbry's performance was not quite flawless, particularly in Act 1 where a few of her notes were sharp and her stage presence was rather neutral. But she grew in stature as the evening progressed and in the last two acts, where most of Bess' great moments are placed, she was overwhelming.
Estes performed under a curious handicap; he twisted his knee during rehearsal and had to perform on crutches. This might not seem a problem when the role is that of a crippled beggar, but Porgy normally spends the opera on his knees, with knee-pads built into his costume. Estes' injury made it necessary for him to keep his right leg straight throughout the performance, so he spent much of the evening on his left knee with his right leg stretched out in front or to the side, and it was impossible for him to kneel in his goat cart as Porgy normally does for his first entrance and his final exit.
The injury undoubtedly complicated the scene in Act 3 where he fights with and kills the villain Crown. It was handled smoothly, but it was not nearly as impressive as the Act 1 fight scene in which Crown murders Robbins -- a spectacular bit of undanced choreography with impressive acrobatics and overtones of martial arts. If Estes was in pain during the performance, he gave no sign of it; his voice was smooth, perfectly controlled and expressive in the smallest musical and dramatic nuances.
The evening's two most impressive debuts were those of Charles Williams as Sportin' Life and Gregg Baker as Crown. Williams has two show-stopping songs: "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon," and he stopped the show in both of them.
The first had a primarily comic interpretation but one with sinister overtones; the audience was not allowed to forget, amid the witty lyrics and catchy melody, that this was a dope peddler preaching unbelief to people at a church picnic. In the second, the sinister elements took over almost completely, flavored with a specious sort of charm. Both songs were sung impeccably with the right dance movements to underline the words.
Despite the big names in the title roles, the true strength of this production may lie in the excellent casting of its secondary parts. Myra Merritt, as Clara, sings "Summertime," the opening number and one of the best-known in the opera, and does it beautifully, but her performance is first-class throughout. Florence Quivar, as Serena, whose husband is killed, has some of the opera's most dramatic music and handles it powerfully. Barbara Conrad, as Maria, has the vivid "I Hates Yo' Struttin' Style" in which Sportin' Life is told exactly what she thinks of him, and she makes it one of the most memorable moments in this production, cutting up a chicken with a cleaver as she tells the villain in detail what she would like to do to him.
The chorus, 70 voices recruited for this production, matches the high singing standard established by the chorus that usually occupies the Met's stage, and theatrically -- in its portrayal of the poor people of Catfish Row -- it is outstanding.
Music director Levine has masterminded an outstanding production of an opera whose greatness becomes ever more apparent as the quality of performance improves. He presents "Porgy and Bess" without any of the cuts that are usually made and in three acts rather than the two that are often seen. This means the show runs for four hours, including two intermissions, but it never lags for a moment and it would be hard to find anything (even among the numerous dramatically superfluous elements) that would be better left out. It is a production worthy of a historic occasion.