`Porgy and Bess' finally arrives at the Met -- and steps out in style

If any doubts remained as to whether or not George Gershwin's ``Porgy and Bess'' was an opera, the Metropolitan Opera dispelled them Feb. 6. On that evening, the Gershwin masterwork was finally given its first Met performance -- nearly 50 years after the work first premi`ered in Boston. Granted, the Houston Grand Opera production in '76 showed the musical world that the work belonged in an opera house. But for many, ``Porgy'' was not going to arrive operatically until the Met had put it on its boards.

And the Met has done honorably by ``Porgy and Bess.'' It has been lavishly cast, and in accord with the Gershwin estate stricture that the cast be all black except for the few talking roles written for whites. Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry sing the title roles; many of the supporting parts are given to Met regulars like Myra Merritt, Barbara Conrad, Isola Jones, and Florence Quivar. Thirteen singers are at the Met for the first time (as are actors Larry Storch and Gary Drane). The chorus, hired specifically for this opera, numbers 70 adults, plus children and dancers (the Workshop Ensemble of the Dance Theatre of Harlem).

The opera is presented without cuts -- a solid three hours of music, plus two intermissions. As with all but the most perfect of operas, some of the music in ``Porgy'' is expendable, but when one thinks that this was Gershwin's only crack at an art form that took most composers 10 or 15 tries to really master, the results are extraordinary.

But then again, ``Porgy'' is an extraordinary opera. The choral writing is as skillful and lavish as anything in Verdi and Wagner. The big tunes hardly need introduction, but one is constantly amazed at their variety and communicative range, the superb way they build and arch, and how effortlessly they follow one another from overture to finale. The accompanied recitatives -- dropped in most revivals until Houston's -- bristle with vitality. The big concert numbers -- I think first of the hair-raising choral writing that begins and ends the ``Hurricane Scene'' -- stick in the mind's ear long after the final curtain. The magnificent trio for Porgy, Maria, and Serena, when Porgy decides to go to New York to look for Bess, is as moving as anything in the operatic canon. The love music is even more haunting in the context of the opera.

Much of the reason the Met's ``Porgy'' is so eloquent is due to James Levine. He hears and conducts the opera as a cyclical unity -- keeping the long arch through an act tense and alive. The Met orchestra plays magnificently for him. Unfortunately, there is a trade-off -- a lack of plasticity within certain key moments, and a tendency to drive inexorably forward like a clangorous locomotive.

The strength of the evening lies in the singing rather than Nathaniel Merrill's staging, which proves surprisingly old-fashioned. Robert O'Hearn has designed a very fine Catfish Row and an enchanting Kittiwah Island scene; Mr. Merrill has used the overall space well.

Mr. Merrill's low-key direction particularly affects Miss Bumbry and Mr. Estes. The former tends to resort to odd gesturings that distract from the fundamental effectiveness of her portrayal. Hers is clearly a mature Bess (as indicated in the libretto) rather than a juvenile waif. Her scenes with Crown take on a desperate urgency, and those with Porgy a lustrous pathos, not felt when Bess is in the first flush of womanhood. Miss Bumbry's blazing diva presence puts this evening squarely in an opera house.

After a few rough moments in the first act, her singing opening night was of the opulent, major-voiced sort this score has cried out for and rarely received. Most striking were the clarity of her diction and the tenderness with which she imbued so many passages.

Mr. Estes, who rightfully notes that Porgy is as difficult to sing as the Flying Dutchman, sang with unstinting ease all night. Where most Porgys come to grief in the last act, Mr. Estes sounded fresher and more confident, climbing the vocal line with assured ease. He tends to be less effective as a singing actor, content with projecting the words clearly, and he had the added liability of an injured knee. All that said, his singing was an event in itself. And when these two voices blended in those aching duets, Met vocal ``magic'' was at hand.

Newcomer Gregg Baker, as Crown, looked dangerous in all the aspects the role requires, and he sang with an attractive lightweight bass. Other eloquent contributors to the evening included Miss Quivar's sensitive Serena, Miss Conrad's tough-yet-gentle Maria, debuting Bruce Hubbard's sonorous Jake, and Miss Merritt's sweet Clara, once past the rigorous hurdle of ``Summertime.'' In her few musical lines, Miss Jones covered herself with glory as the Strawberry Woman.

The ``Porgy and Bess'' chorus sang with thrilling fervency and acted with a vitality and urgency not seen in the regular Met chorus for several seasons.

``Porgy and Bess'' is in repertory at the Met, with some cast changes through April 4, and it is scheduled to return next season. The radio broadcast is on March 23; check local listings.

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