The Gershwins’ Electronic Porgy

by Sedgwick Clark

Am I the only one who found Audra McDonald’s Bess jarring?

The controversial pared-down adaptation of Porgy and Bess now on Broadway—updated, rewritten, politicized, feminized, call it what you will—was initially attacked by Stephen Sondheim prior to its Cambridge tryout last summer, sight unseen, for having the audacity to change the text. But whatever problems the critics had with the adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, Diane Paulus’s directorial concept, or the other actors/singers, McDonald emerged triumphant and, as Susan Elliott wrote in her review, will probably get a Tony.

My problem with McDonald—who may be my favorite singer in the world—is that she is playing neo-realism, complete with a nasty scar on her left cheek and a downright ugly tone of her alluring voice. Alright, I get it: Bess is a drug-addicted ho, and the rest of the cast could be right out of Gone with the Wind. Crown (Phillip Boykin) could take a lesson from Wagner’s Hunding, and David Alan Grier’s drug-dealing Sportin’ Life is no more reptilian than a garter snake. Norm Lewis portrays a noble Porgy but can’t compete vocally with the aggressive Audra, whose show this clearly is.

Today being today, the set is as deliberately depressing as possible. The choreography is crippled (was this deliberate too?). Perhaps worst of all, Gershwin’s lush orchestral writing is reduced to a hideously tinny, gratingly amplified 20-piece band, clodhopperishly conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos. I knew we were in for a rough evening when the piano jumped out clangorously in the texture early in the overture.

No amount of bowdlerization by the current Broadway production will stop sold-out audiences from standing and cheering, however, and the run has been extended. At intermission, a woman behind me said to a friend, “I’m caught up in the music. What did they cut?” Just goes to show ya’ that even pockmarked by an unmusical rendering, Gershwin’s songs can’t be beat.

Many critics referred to Simon Rattle’s recording as an interpretive touchstone. I’ve not heard it, but I was struck when I listened again this weekend to the excellent 1977 Houston Grand Opera recording on RCA by how the music could only have been composed in the 20th century. I happily recall the Met’s fine production from the 1980s, but the most memorable production I’ve seen was at Radio City Music Hall in 1983, unerringly conducted by C. William Harwood. I recall thinking how much I looked forward to hearing him conduct again; tragically he succumbed to AIDS a year later at age 36.

The Unpredictable Jed Distler

Jed once composed a string quartet styled as a set of variations on the Mister Softee theme, in which the final variation was a triple fugue combining the Mister Softee and Mister Ed themes with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.

Friday (2/17) is the 30th anniversary of the great jazz composer-pianist Thelonius Monk’s death. At the Cornelia Street Café (29 Cornelia Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan) Jed will play two sets of what he calls “The Complete Works of Thelonius Monk,” at 9 and 10:30. The complete works? That seemed preposterous even for Jed, so I called him.

“Basically I’m interweaving all the pieces into one continuous fabric. Sometimes there might be seven blues themes played in quick succession over a pedal point, but in contrast Blue Monk provides a framework for more extensive, complex improvisation. In a few instances I’ll be playing the songs exactly as written.  In others the themes might suggest Shostakovich or Strauss, but of course through my own demented filters.”

My Night with Gluck  

Being a picky opera and baroque fancier, the combined Met+Juilliard alliance in a concert performance of Gluck’s Armide (1777) at the School’s Jay Sharp Theater may have been and is likely to be my sole encounter with this composer’s music, which struck me as formulaic/uninspired. The plot is set at the time of the First Crusade and deals with the sorceress Armide, princess of Damascus, who has, shall we say, issues with men and is horrified to find that she is falling in love with the one who alone has withstood her charms. Look to Tommasini’s glowing review in the Times for a more informed appreciation. But I must say that I agreed with Tony completely on the quite impressive performances by the young cast. I’ll list them in full below and bet that several of these names will be well known in the near future. Emalie Savoy in the title role and Renée Tatum as La Haine, in particular, were dramatic dynamite.

The cast: Emalie Savoy (Armide), Alexander Hajek (Hidraot), David Portillo (Renaud), Alexander Lewis (Artémidore), Luthando Qave (Ubalde), Noah Baetge (Le Chevalier Danois), Wallis Giunta (Phénice), Devon Guthrie (Sidonie), Evan Hughes (Aronte), Renée Tatum (La Haine), Soo Yeon Kim (La Naïade), Pureum Jo (2nd Coryphée), Deanna Breiwick (Une Bergère), Lilla Heinrich-Szász (Lucinde), and Raquel González (Mélisse). The British conductor Jane Glover was the workmanlike leader.

To give full due to the presenters: The Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program in partnership with the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at The Juilliard School.

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