Lowcountry plays role in Met’s HD classic “Porgy and Bess”

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By ALAN SCHUSTER

After several successful jazz-influenced musicals, among them “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” composer George Gershwin decided that it was time to move on from concert halls to opera houses. And what likely helped spark his enthusiasm was a novel written by Charleston native DuBose Heyward. It’s title – “Porgy.”

He met Heyward in 1926 and they soon teamed up, with Heyward and his playwright wife, Dorothy, writing the libretto, and George and his brother Ira, composing the music. Adding another important person came soon afterward – “Bess.”

With the location being a Gullah community on the Carolina Lowcountry coast, Gershwin spent a couple of months there, exploring the community’s life, speech and music, all of which became reflected in each of the three acts once its premiere as “Porgy and Bess” took place in Boston in 1935.

Gershwin’s masterpiece is currently having its first performances at the Met in almost three decades, starring bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Angel Blue in the title roles. Director James Robinson’s stylish production transports audiences to Catfish Row, a setting vibrant with the music, dancing, emotion and heartbreaks of its inhabitants.

Act I

Citizens of the Catfish Row neighborhood are relaxing in the Charleston heat. Clara comforts her baby with a lullaby while a group of men roll dice. Crown, a drug addict, joins the game, and in a drunken fit, kills another gambler, then flees the scene, leaving his lover Bess behind. As the crowd waits for the police, only Porgy, a disabled beggar, is kind to her.

Act II

A month later, Porgy and Bess have found happiness together. Bess refuses dope from Sportin’Life, a drug dealer, who invites her to go to New York with him, but Porgy chases him away. Later on, Bess attends a picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island (yes, it is!) while Porgy stays behind. When it’s time to return home, Bess in cornered by Crown, who has been hiding on the island since the murder. He wants Bess to come away with him, but she explains that she’s with Porgy now. Crown won’t take no for an answer.

Act III

A week has passed and a storm is approaching. Bess, feverish since her return from Kittiwah, tells Porgy that she can’t refuse Crown if he comes for her; he tells Bess that he’ll protect her.

The next day, Catfish residents gather to pray for safety from an oncoming hurricane. Crown has come to claim Bess, but when the group sees a boat capsize, Crown rushes to save a drowning man.

The following evening, the women mourn those lost in the storm. They assume Crown is among them, but that night he sneaks back to steal Bess away. Porgy kills Crown and is taken to jail.

Sportin’Life takes advantage of Porgy’s absence and tempts Bess into taking dope. A week later, Porgy returns from jail and learns that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’Life. Undaunted, he gets in his wheelchair, vowing to find Bess, no matter how long the journey might take.

The reviews

Here’s what a few reviewers had to say about earlier Met performances.

From Anthony Tommasini, N.Y. Times: “As Porgy, the magnificent bass-baritone Eric Owens gives one of the finest performances of his distinguished career. His powerful voice, with its earthy textures and resonant sound, is ideal for the role. His sensitivity into the layered feelings and conflicts that drive his character made even the most familiar moments of the music seem startlingly fresh. And, as Bess, the sumptuously-voiced soprano Angel Blue is radiant, capturing both the pride and fragility of the character.”

From Opera News: Remove “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I got plenty o’ Nuttin” from the opera, and you’re still left with some spectacular music.”

From Opera Wire’s David Salazar: “This production features a rotating set that presents the Catfish Row tenement as a series of two story buildings with a central hub around which the people gather, allowing for an environment to be constantly populated and feel alive with people. It’s probably everything a Met audience could ask for.”

Want to go?

What: Met Opera’s Live HD broadcast of Porgy and Bess.

When: 12:55 p.m. Saturday, Feb 1.

Where: USC Beaufort Center for the Arts, 801 Carteret St., Beaufort.

Tickets: All seats are general admission. Adults $20, OLLI members $18; Students free. Tickets are available at the box office; order on-line at www.centerforthearts.com; or call 843-521-4145.