Chetana Nagavajara

 Porgy and Bess in a concert performance in Berlin

The story of Porgy and Bess is supposed to have taken place in Charleston, South Carolina, shortly after the Civil War. To feel your way back to American history, with emphasis on the plight of those impoverished African Americans, is already a daunting task. George Gershwin was ambitious enough to create an opera – and it is an opera that can measure up to the European antecedents – on the fate of the black people, a tragic opera that could touch your heart in years to come. He was at home in jazz; his friends were African Americans; he could empathize with them. He had studied classical music to the point that enabled him to express himself in an original way. What emerged from this interweaving of various cultures is a work that requires its interpreter to get to know these cultures inside out. Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra did their best to try to capture the spirit that propelled Gershwin to such great artistic heights. When I heard the piano part of the overture, I could sense straightaway that the grandchildren of Wilhelm Furtwängler were to have to struggle hard through the evening. Well, they did not show any sign of struggle at all. On the contrary they showed extreme confidence and appeared to be at home with this music. They played it the way they used to play. Certain parts sounded like Richard Wagner, (Gershwin might have been flattered), while other parts reminded me of Richard Strauss, especially the emotionally tense parts that could have come straight out of Die Frau ohne Schatten or even Elektra.

It is inevitable that when an opera is not performed on the opera stage, but as a symphony concert, the orchestra is automatically vested with a certain degree of prominence. (Wagner decided to sink more than half of the orchestra under the stage of his Bayreuth Festival Theatre, known as the “Abgrund” [abyss]). And the way Simon Rattle conducted his orchestra as a feat of gymnastics only contributed to the orchestral hegemony. Yet, I consider it a boon to be able visually to observe the orchestra. Where did this genius named Gershwin learn how to exploit the full potential of a symphony orchestra, augmented by such a weird instrument as the banjo, which normally would not have been allowed to come near a classical orchestra like this one? It was not a wrong decision to engage a first-class symphony orchestra to perform in Porgy and Bess. Never mind about the wind instruments, especially the brass, as we know the composer was at home in jazz and mastered them very well. But the writing for the strings was very demanding indeed, just as difficult as Wagner, I would say. And when the strings were made to perform “programme music” of sorts to represent a storm, this autodidact, Gershwin, could well outdo Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer.
I am not exaggerating. The strings of the Berlin Philharmonic on the night of September 15, 2012, were responding to the challenge of the same kind as Wagner, and they were producing the sound that was probably more Wagnerian than Gershwinian! Come to think about it, had the St.Louis Symphony been engaged for “Porgy and Bess” (with an American conductor), it might have been more true to the style, but the St. Louis strings would not have shown the same level of virtuosity as the Berlin Phil. The question of style is a debatable point. Is it solely the conductor who determines the style of playing? Are instrumentalists not the products of certain traditions and schools? (The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was notorious for its faithfulness to its musical provenance, and conductors cannot impose their will on these Viennese. Even a great conductor like Otto Klemperer just gave up!)I don’t think we can find a definitive answer to that question.

Those who knew what Gershwin wanted were the singers, all African Americans. All of them had had operatic training and experience, and most of them had sung Wagner roles before. What one heard from these black singers in the Philharmonie was the best of operatic singing with the added timbre and enunciation peculiar to African Americans. Latonia Moore, who took over the part of Bess at a very short notice (in place of a colleague who had prematurely given birth to a baby), was superb, both musically and dramatically. The part of Porgy was sung by Sir Willard White,
a Jamaican singer who had been knighted by the Queen; at 61 he could still embody the role of this passionate young man with utter conviction. I must confess that I had never realized that Gershwin demanded of his singers the kind of vocal power that one usually associates with Wagner. I was stunned by the duets that could have come straight out of Tristan und Isolde. Another star of the evening was “The Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation Chorus”, mostly black with a few white South Africans. Some members stepped out of the chorus line to sing minor roles, and they were of the standard that would qualify them for the major roles, if asked to do so.
The evening was a feast of singing that I had rarely experienced, even in the Berlin opera houses. But I could not help feeling that these great singers were not fully supported by the conductor and the orchestra. Simon Rattle loved the exciting and passionate moments which afforded him the opportunity to (over)drive his virtuoso orchestra, but it was the quieter, more pensive moments that Gershwin created as an instrument to probe the depths of human destiny. The final scene could have been serene and heart-rending. The lead singer was trying his utmost to convey the hopelessness of the grotesque Quixotic journey in search of his beloved Bess. Alas, the conductor was looking for the last big bang!

There is a lot more to Porgy and Bess than “Summertime” that we all know. It’s an opera that we should see and hear more often. The fate of “the small man” is indeed of mythic dimensions. Only a genius like Gershwin could achieve that.