Audra McDonald & Soledad O’Brien
Juan Diego Florez & Sacha Baron Cohen
Rolando Villazon & Mr. Bean
Marina Poplavskaya & Meryl Streep
Anna Netrebko & Salma Hayek
Natalie Dessay & Rachel Dratch
Deborah Voigt & Nancy Grace
Audra McDonald & Soledad O’Brien
Juan Diego Florez & Sacha Baron Cohen
Rolando Villazon & Mr. Bean
Marina Poplavskaya & Meryl Streep
Anna Netrebko & Salma Hayek
Natalie Dessay & Rachel Dratch
Deborah Voigt & Nancy Grace
“Some operas are real passions of mine. The final trio in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ kills me every time, especially when sung by Susan Graham, Renée Fleming and Heidi Grant Murphy. I may have levitated when I heard them.” - Audra McDonald
Warning: this is just a preliminary review. I plan to see the show again for further assessment. These are just mere observations from the first performance I attended. This production is far too complex for just one review.
SEVERE WEATHER ALERT: A raging hurricane can be found tearing up the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater, and it nearly threatens to eviscerate everything and everyone in its path. No, I’m not referring to the hurricane that besieges the poor residents of Catfish Row in act II of “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”. Such extreme weather conditions come courtesy of the exquisite Audra McDonald who is single-handedly carrying, what is otherwise, a dour, muddled take on the greatest American opera ever composed.
The miracle of Ms. McDonald’s performance lies in her ability to make the audience feel her character’s deep well of emotions…and what beautiful, messy emotions they are! Even when Ms. McDonald isn’t applying her lustrous soprano to Gershwin’s irresistible melodies, she is able to register ambivalence, joy, regret, and pain with the smallest gesture or the slightest shift in her posture. It’s a remarkable performance, and to say Ms. McDonald has outdone herself is to state the blatantly obvious.
The same cannot be said for the rest of Diane Paulus’ confused production, which fails to deliver the heart wrenching drama that a good production of “Porgy” can provide. This “Porgy and Bess” feels threadbare and musically inert. Ms. Paulus has certainly elicited superb acting from nearly every cast member, but almost no one can rise to the level of Ms. McDonald’s vocal splendor and musicianship. For me, the show seemed to deflate whenever Ms. McDonald was not present.
David Allen Grier has to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the production; completely embodying the sleazy Sportin’ Life with gusto and oily charm. Mr. Allen Grier (who has a lovely singing voice) steals many of the scenes and is a welcome, lively presence.
Sadly, Norm Lewis - a charismatic Broadway vet and normally a first-rate singer - is vocally under powered and woefully miscast as Porgy. He’s a sympathetic presence, but he has far too much leading man bravado to be believable as a crippled tragic hero. His “I Got Plenty O’ Nothin’” was a lugubrious mess, with Mr. Lewis taking far too many musical liberties essentially undercutting the folksy ebb and flow of Gershwin’s charming, colloquial paean to the simple life. Porgy is a cripple, beaten down by life, yes, but a good Porgy must have a booming, rich bass-baritone voice to convey his humanity and his unyielding kindness. Mr. Lewis’ voice is smooth but small. He also has some distinct rough patches in his voice, which I found oddly disconcerting.
Diane Paulus’ much debated, highly controversial production has been a source of contention for theater and opera buffs. As you probably know, there were some proposed alterations to the libretto by the creative team during the initial workshops. Many - including Stephen Sondheim - took exception to any tampering with this beloved masterpiece. Storywise, the purists can sleep soundly, as the libretto has remained more or less intact.
It must be said that Ms. Paulus has tightened and clarified the story telling, and the story has more of a cohesive dramatic flow. The opera feels more intimate and involving from a theatrical viewpoint. But the production still feels like a cut and paste job, and opera purists are correct in their assertions about the quality of the singing (save for Ms. McDonald) and the paired down arrangements. Some of the orchestrations are downright baffling. Emotional moments such as “Bess You is My Woman” and “My Man’s Gone Now” come off as tepid and unremarkable.
Riccardo Hernandez’s abstract set is beautifully weathered and visually striking, but doesn’t really give the audience a good sense of where we are or what we’re supposed to be looking at. Ronald K. Brown’s lively choreography deftly mixes traditional African dance, swing, and Broadway jazz to create some very elegant dance numbers.
But “Porgy” is a landmark piece of lyric drama and it is (to my amazement) seldom performed. In truth, Audra McDonald is worth the price of admission. Her performance is a master class in exquisite acting. She well may be a Bess for the ages or, dare I say, the greatest Bess ever.
Can we all just agree right now that Audra McDonald is going to be the sexiest Bess ever! I’m so friggin’ excited for this. I have been dreaming of staging a production of ‘Porgy’ with Audra for YEARS! Also, I couldn’t be happier that Norm Lewis is playing Porgy. If nothing else, this is going to be the most lusciously sung ‘Porgy’ ever.
by Stephen Sondheim
The article by Mr. Healy about the coming revival of “Porgy and Bess” is dismaying on many levels. To begin with, the title of the show is now “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” I assume that’s in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart “Porgy and Bess” that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now”) or co-written with Ira Gershwin (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”). If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves. If it’s the producers’ idea, it’s just dumb. More dismaying is the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself.
Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.
What Ms. Paulus wants, and has ordered, are back stories for the characters. For example she (or, rather, Ms. Parks) is supplying Porgy with dialogue that will explain how he became crippled. She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings. It makes you speculate about what would happen if she ever got her hands on “Tosca” and ‘Don Giovanni.” How would we get to know them? Ms. Paulus would probably want to add an aria or two to explain how Tosca got to be a star, and she would certainly want some additional material about Don Giovanni’s unhappy childhood to explain what made him such an unconscionable lecher.
Then there is Ms. Paulus’s condescension toward the audience. She says, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.” I don’t know what she’s sorry about, but I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers. If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?
She is joined heartily in this sentiment by Ms. McDonald, who says that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Often? Meaning sometimes she’s full-blooded and other times not? She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in “Porgy and Bess” that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?
Among the ways in which Ms. Parks defends the excavation work is this: “I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so that they are not cardboard cutout characters” and goes on to say, “I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including the ending.”
It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him, and that she thinks he would have taken one of the most moving moments in musical theater history — Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!” — and thrown it out. Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.
Or perhaps in order to have her happy ending, she’ll have Bess turn around when she gets as far as Philadelphia and return to Catfish Row in time for the finale, thus saving Porgy the trouble of his heroic journey to New York. It will kill “I’m on My Way,” but who cares?
Ms. McDonald immediately dismisses any possible criticism by labeling anyone who might have objections to what Ms. Paulus and her colleagues are doing as “Gershwin purists” — clearly a group, all of whom think alike, and we all know what a “purist” is, don’t we? An inflexible, academic reactionary fuddy-duddy who lacks the imagination to see beyond the author’s intentions, who doesn’t recognize all “the holes and issues” that Ms. Paulus and Ms. McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks do. Never fear, though. They confidently claim that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.
I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting. Nor am I judging this production in advance, only the attitude of its creators toward the piece and the audience. Perhaps it will be wonderful. Certainly I can think of no better Porgy than Norm Lewis nor a better Bess than Audra McDonald, whose voice is one of the glories of the American theater. Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.
Which brings me back to my opening point. In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” nor even “The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.” Advertise it honestly as “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.” And the hell with the real one.
A revamped version of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” starring Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier, will go to Broadway soon after it completes its run, previously announced, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
Producers announced on Wednesday that the show — which plays down its roots as an opera and features a reworked book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and new arrangements by Diedre Murray — will open at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Jan. 12, with previews beginning on Dec. 17.
Diane Paulus, the artistic director at the A.R.T., will direct “Porgy and Bess.” Kicking off the company’s season, the show is slated to run from Aug. 17 to Oct. 2, with an opening night on Aug. 31.
When the A.R.T. engagement was first announced, Ms. Paulus said that she and the creative team intended the show to “have a future life” beyond Cambridge. She said then that the Gershwin estate wanted to turn the classic work into a musical and “bring it to the audiences of today.”
The casting of Ms. McDonald as Bess, Mr. Lewis (“Sondheim on Sondheim”) as Porgy, Mr. Grier (“Race”) as Sportin’ Life, and Joshua Henry (“The Scottsboro Boys”) as Jake made clear this was unlikely to be just a short regional run. And the producers, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, expressed optimism about Broadway after workshops and a developmental performance for investors in May.
“Porgy and Bess” had its premiere in Boston in 1935 and ran briefly on Broadway soon after. The show had months-long revivals there in 1942 and 1953, but in recent decades it has remained in opera houses.
Sing for Your Life! There are many aspects of this article that hit way too close to home (especially if you’ve ever been to a voice conservatory, where the idea of opera competitions is practically hanging in the air at all times.) Every year, the New York Times does a piece on the Met Council Auditions. They’re always the same: interviewing the winners, chronicling the struggles of a few of the competitors with unique stories, and listing the various struggles that go into the process of competing and building a career in opera. This article was a bit more in depth, but it still feels like the same piece we’ve read before. I wish we could have heard from some of the people that didn’t win. What were their stories and what did they think of the whole process?
The title “An American Idol Just for Opera” is quite telling. In opera, despite the faux-finish of prestige that comes with being an opera singer, the process of developing a career was never really that different from American Idol. One could argue that the difference, of course, is the fact that there is little glory in singing opera, the outcome is determined by industry insiders, and opera singers have to spend years training and working on musicianship and language skills. But, ultimately, opera is a business and singers are expected to compete for their supper. We’d like to think that competitions will lead to finding some of the great artists of our time but, let’s not kid ourselves, the singer with the golden larynx is going to be the “chosen one.”
As with American Idol, top notes, giant sounds, and impressive cadenzas will ultimately determine who gets ahead. In this day and age, impressive vocalism is paramount, no matter how much talk there is about “Peter Gelb’s Met” or “The Age of the Singing Actor.”
One line in the article, “Out of reverence for Verdi’s music, he had wanted his performance to be pure, unadorned by any acting,” sent shivers down my spine. The line is very indicative of the opera world’s views of what opera “should be.” For many, acting is something that is tacked on when singing, as opposed to a vital factor that is naturally integrated into a singer’s performance.
How does the absence of acting pay reverence to Verdi’s music? Verdi always said that he favored dramatic expressive voices over pretty sounds. He wanted his singers to act! For god sakes, this is the composer who is constantly cited as the composer who raised theatrical standards in opera to a whole new level. When arguing over a composer’s “intention,” there ought to be a general consensus among singers and coaches that, when it comes to Verdi, the “intention” was always drama and expression.
Even young singers today don’t seem to get it. I was talking to a very opinionated mezzo about the aria “Glitter and be Gay” which, for my money, hasn’t been topped since Kristin Chenoweth’s hilariously daffy reinterpretation at the 2004 “Encores!” concert. Ms. Chenoweth brilliantly channeled everything from The Marx Brother’s to Madeline Kahn, making a revelation of a piece that had long been treated as a cutesy soprano show-piece aria. “Ugh, but her high notes sound like a chipmunk!” said the opinionated mezzo. Fair enough. But I was looking at the performance as a whole. And in defense of Ms. Chenoweth’s voice, she nailed the top notes using her own unique sound. It’s Kristin’s sound, and you know it when you hear it. The opinionated mezzo recommended Diana Damrau’s rendition of the aria. Yes, the top notes are warm, plush, and shimmery. These are indeed lovely sounds but sounds that could belong to any number of sopranos. The same could be said of the whole performance. Her acting is the epitome of generic cuteness. Here is an actress trying way too hard to be funny and clearly loosing the battle.
I had a similar disagreement with a baritone over the aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from “Porgy.” I had always been devastated by Audra McDonald’s richly nuanced and deeply affecting take on the piece. For Ms. McDonald, singing is merely an extension of her speaking voice where words and music are indistinguishable. When she sings “My Man’s Gone Now” you don’t just know what she’s feeling; you feel what she’s feeling. Every word and every phrase comes through with heart-stopping immediacy. The baritone I was talking to favored BIG voices. He wanted to hear big, impressive, showy voices and he refused to believe that anyone could do justice to “My Man’s Gone Now” other than Leontyne Price. Once again, I saw a vocally pristine, dramatically inert interpretation of a highly dramatic piece. All the notes were there, being sung by a redoubtable voice, but as we all know, Ms. Price was never much of an actress, something that was all too apparent in her tepid performance. Ms. McDonald may not have the huge voice of Leontyne Price, but a big dramatic voice is useless if there’s no drama happening.
These young singers’ opinions are sadly the norm in the opera world, and it’s my belief that competitions help foster this way of thinking about singing. With the dismaying news over the financial woes of City Opera - the last haven for quirky individualism in opera - and their recent decision to leave Lincoln Center, it feels like we’ve descended even further into the pits of artistic impoverishment. Everything is about competitions, perfect vocalism, and showing off the voice these days. There’s no room for a young singer to fail anymore. You have to be at the top of your game, or you’re finished.
The Met Council Auditions have turned out many successful singers, but it’s interesting that very few of them have gone on to become interesting artists or major stars. Most of the exciting talents have come from Europe, where it’s okay for a singer to start a little later or take some time to develop. Alas, we’re a nation that believes competition is good for everything and younger is always better.
Could this woman be anymore wonderful? She was my reason for getting up in the morning when I was dealing with conservatory life. She has such a feeling for text as well as the beauty of her singing. I love how she phrased the “I” in the line, “Pretending I am wonderful” it gives me goosebumps!
What a beautiful thing! Isn’t it funny how certain music resonates with you? This is especially true for well written musical theater due to the specificity of the text. Some songs feel like they belong to you. Audra breaks your heart. Every word, every thought has a meaning and an intention…please make another CD for the love of Sondheim!!!
I Won’t Mind by Jeff Blumenkrantz, performed by Audra McDonald.
This song touches me deeply, because it reminds me of the love one of my paternal aunts has for me. She’s been the most loving to me out of the many family members I’ve met, despite that her part in my life could have been small. She’s not a godmother, she doesn’t live near by, she has no responsibility to me, but she still takes it upon herself daily to make me smile. I can’t even express how much I appreciate it.
This article pertains to another article I wrote a while back called, “Crossover Artists And Other Terminal Diseases.” Some opera singers seem to think that musical theater is some sort of poor cousin to opera. But, in fact, they are two completely different art forms. However, one needs to make a study of theater to fully understand this. The music is complex in it’s own way, as is the art-form itself. Just because it’s not Wagner, does not mean it’s frivolous and doesn’t have something meaningful to say. I’ll take “Sunday in the Park with George” over “Manon” any day. Of course, tastes vary and musical theater may not be your cup of tea. That is perfectly fine. But to tacitly dismiss something on the basis of snobbery (or mere observation) is inexcusable. Keep an open mind…
Collegiate Chorale Paulo Szot and Deborah Voigt, with orchestra and chorus on Thursday night at the Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall.
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: May 20, 2011
No question: the musical forces on the stage of Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening were mighty. Take the 180-voice Collegiate Chorale, add a real-life Brünnhilde in the person of the great dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt, and you should expect nothing less than thunder and lightning. But it was not to be. A distant rumble, a flicker on the horizon, a spritz of rain, yes. But except for a rip-roaring “Oklahoma!” when everything suddenly converged, there was only a hint of a storm.
The occasion was the chorale’s spring concert and benefit, “Something Wonderful: An Evening of Broadway With Deborah Voigt.” Ted Sperling conducted the American Symphony Orchestra; the dashing baritone Paulo Szot was special guest and Ms. Voigt’s on-and-off singing partner.
The problems began with the microphone. Ms. Voigt’s decision to use one throughout most of the program turned out to be an exercise in self-suppression. She muted her power to create a more informal, intimate attitude, making her voice sound ragged and occasionally uncertain, if still essentially operatic. Only when she dispensed with amplification to sing “My Man’s Gone Now,” in a “Porgy and Bess” suite, did her magnificent sound unfurl in scorching tongues of fire.
At the same time, Carnegie Hall’s acoustic quirks diffused the chorale’s massed voices into whooshes. You had the impression of tons of vocal confetti being tossed to the wind. The repertory was also problematic. Why the melodious but insipid selections from “The Music Man” that dominated the early part of the 90-minute show? They may be pretty but offer little in the way of interpretive challenge.
To a lesser degree, the same goes for the Kern-Hammerstein songs from “Sweet Adeline” (with the exception of “Why Was I Born? ”) and the so-so “You Are Never Away,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Allegro.”
As the program became more substantial, a deeper problem emerged. Ms. Voigt’s sincere efforts to break out of an operatic mode into the spontaneous, quasi-conversational fluidity demanded by Broadway were largely futile. “Something Wonderful,” from “The King and I” remained coolly elevated; “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” was stiff. Even “Losing My Mind,” the killer ballad from “Follies,” whose narrator is questioning her mental stability, remained lofty and safely tranquilized.
“They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” had no underlying yearning or sense of expectation. Some barriers came down during Ms. Voigt’s and Mr. Szot’s duets on “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” and “Anything You Can Do,” but even here, their playfulness was forced.
The show left me pondering a question that has been floating in the air since the 1980s vogue of recordings of Broadway shows sung by opera stars. Are musical comedy and opera first cousins? Or are they really distant relatives? A handful of singers like Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell tease us with the possibility that the two are immediate family. But I wonder.
Early in the show Ms. Voigt said, “It’s nice to be among you mortals and to be on a stage that isn’t moving.” But the evening suggested that escaping Valhalla isn’t as easy as picking up a microphone and posing as one of the folks.
The Glamorous Life
“The Glamorous Life” sung by the incandescent Audra McDonald…and you wonder why I’m obsessed with this woman.
So fucking excited about Audra’s upcoming “Porgy & Bess.” It’s been my dream for years to see her in the part!!!