Simon Rattle conducts “Porgy and Bess”

17 Sep 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Willard White, Latonia Moore

  • George Gershwin
    Porgy and Bess (concert performance) (201 min.)

    Sir Willard White Bass-Baritone (Porgy), Andrea Baker Soprano (Serena, His Wife), Howard Haskin Tenor (Sportin' Life), Latonia Moore Soprano (Bess), John Fulton Tenor (Robbins, A Young Fisherman), Lester Lynch Baritone (Crown), Angel Blue Soprano (Clara, His Wife), Rodney Clarke Baritone (Jake, Fisherman), Michael Redding Baritone (Jim), Tichina Vaughn Mezzo-Soprano (Maria), Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation Chorus (Residents of Catfish Row), Albert Horne Chorus Master

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Willard White in conversation with Sarah Willis (17 min.)

  • free

    Behind the scenes of “Porgy and Bess” (12 min.)

Simon Rattle’s recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was released in 1989, is among the milestones in his discography. The interpretation was showered with prizes, including a Grammy Award. In this concert, Sir Simon performs the work with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time. Willard White can be heard in the role of Porgy, which he also performed on Rattle’s recording; to the present day, he is considered the perfect embodiment of the role. At his side, Latonia Moore sings the role of Bess.

In Gershwin’s work, composed in 1934-35, the two singers portray the heroes in a profoundly sad love story based in a black neighbourhood in South Carolina. Porgy, a crippled beggar, loves the beautiful but unstable Bess – so much that he murders for her. She in turn alternates between him and other shady men. The work ends openly, the sole certainty being that the protagonists will find no happiness in this world. As in other great operas, a foreboding of the tragic end is already woven into the love scenes.

One can truly say that one of the strengths of Porgy and Bess is its multi-faceted expressive range. That’s because besides the love story there is a vivid milieu study, full of catchy characters and scenes. The music is similarly variegated: close sometimes to symphonic jazz, sometimes to Italian verismo opera – and yet it never feels fragmented, but rather always held together by an irresistible dramatic force.

“Insulted and Humiliated”

Notes on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

In many respects, the history of North America is a history of religious, political and ethnic minorities: from the dissenting Puritans, Quakers and Catholics who fled to the New World from the discrimination and persecutions that confronted them in the Old World, to the emigrants driven across the Atlantic by European fascism and anti-Semitism. But scarcely had the weaker cast off their shackles and began to grow in number, no longer needing to fear antagonistic force, when they seemed to forget their own past and laid claim to the right of the stronger. As early as 1619, the first Africans arrived at Jamestown, the earliest permanent English settlement in the Americas, established in 1607. Before long, they would be as fiercely subjugated by the settlers as the latter had themselves been as Puritans in the England of the Catholic king James I. Thus the history of America, which in 1776 became the first nation to declare human rights as a fundamental principle, yields a tragic parable of how one group’s power is invariably propped up by the others’ impotence: by the blacks and Chinese, the Poles and Russians, the Italians and Puerto Ricans, the Jews and Native Americans, by the “insulted and humiliated”.

The Africans of Jamestown were soon followed by hundreds of thousands of others, and by 1850 the slave population of the US was 2.5 million. The geographical divide was sharply drawn: in 1830, there were a few hundred thousand blacks in the North, where slavery had largely been abolished, against a white population of 6.5 million, whereas in the Southern states there were 2 million blacks and 4 million whites. As early as 1754, the Quaker writer John Woolman strongly denounced slavery in his essay Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. The same aversion is found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 book Democracy in America. In the chapter “Future Condition of Three Races in the United States”, the author comes to the conclusion that “slavery, which is now contrasted with democratic liberties and the information of our age, cannot survive. By the choice of the master, or by the will of the slave, it will cease; and in either case great calamities may be expected to ensue.” The calamities that Tocqueville predicted came to pass in the war of secession that split America into two enemy camps between 1861 and 1865. It ended with the victory of the Northern states and the abolition of slavery, but the deeply ingrained belief of Southern whites in their rights of mastery and their contempt for blacks could not be simply eradicated by legal decree.

There was one area in which African Americans found early acceptance and opportunity: music. By the “Roaring 20s”, gospel, spirituals, ragtime, blues and other forms spreading from the South – especially the newly evolved jazz from the beginning of the 20th century – became firmly established in the main stream of American music. Their influence on “white” music was unmistakable but it remained largely superficial. Even the adaptation of “black” material in musicals – the most “American” genre of music theatre – was often no more than a background functioning similarly to exoticism and orientalism in fin-de-siècle French music. Only two works transcended this superficiality: thematically, Kurt Weill’s “musical tragedy” Lost in the Stars (1949), a bitter indictment of South African apartheid, and, musically, George Gershwin’s “American folk opera” Porgy and Bess, based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy (1925) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage version of the same name, adapted by Heyward two years later in collaboration with his wife Dorothy.

When the 35-year-old Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess in 1934, he was already one of the most successful Broadway composers of his generation. Needless to say, Heyward was thrilled at the prospect of collaborating with him. He cut his play by half and added a series of song lyrics – advised by Gershwin’s brother Ira, who wrote some lyrics himself. Like Heyward’s novel and play, the libretto is entirely in the Gullah dialect spoken by the descendants of Africans – possibly from Angola – brought to South Carolina in the 18th century through the port city of Charleston. Heyward was born in 1885 in Charleston, where the opera takes place, and he became familiar with Gullah life, language and customs there and as a supervisor on his aunt’s cotton plantation.

So that Gershwin could also familiarize himself with the opera’s milieu, he spent the summer of 1934 on Folly Island, near Charleston. But in spite of the comprehensive sketches he made there, the composer chose not to utilize authentic material. “Porgy and Bess is a folk tale,” he wrote later in his essay Rhapsody in Catfish Row. “I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folk songs. But they are still folk music – and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.” Gershwin’s through-composed, quasi-verismosetting incorporates the most diverse styles – expressionist symphonic music is juxtaposed with songs in the Broadway revue and musical tradition (such as Crown’s “Red-headed woman” and Sportin’ Life’s “It ain’t necessarily so”) and sentimental lyricism (as in the love duet “Bess, you is my woman now” and Clara’s famous “Summertime”) alongside spirituals in often highly complex settings (“Where is brudder Robbins”, “Gone, gone, gone” and “Oh, Doctor Jesus”). The jazz influences, heard right at the outset in the piano blues of Act I, are as stylized as the “work songs” of the fishermen and the Afro-American rhythms of Act II.

The score of Porgy and Bess was finished in summer 1935 and had a triumphant “out-of-town try-out” at Boston’s Colonial Theatre on 30 September 1935. Todd Duncan and Anne Brown sang the title roles; the sets were designed by Serge Soudeikine (whose first wife Vera would marry Igor Stravinsky in 1940); and the production was directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The New York premiere, on 10 October at the Alvin Theatre, was more coolly received, criticized as a “half-hearted combination of musical and opera” and running for 124 performances, relatively few for a Broadway production. Gershwin sought to stimulate the breakthrough of his last theatrical work by extracting a concert suite from the stage version, but he did not live to witness its international success, initiated by the new production premiered in 1941 in Maplewood, New Jersey and transferred on 22 January 1942 to the Majestic Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for eight months. On 27 March 1943, the European premiere of Porgy and Bess took place in Copenhagen (despite all attempts of the Nazi occupation to boycott the “Jewish Negro opera”). By the time of the production that toured Europe and then Latin America and the Middle East between 1952 and 1955 – starring William Warfield and Leontyne Price, with Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life – Porgy and Bess had become one of the most frequently performed operas of the 20th century.

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Richard Evidon

Latonia Moore, born in Houston, Texas, studied at the University of North Texas and later at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Her extensive repertoire ranges from Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Lucrezia (Lucrezia Borgia), Violetta (La Traviata) to Tatiana (Eugene Onegin) and Marguerite (Faust).The young soprano, who has already won several international awards, has had great success as Mimì (La Bohème) at the Semperoper in Dresden, as Micaëla (Carmen) at New York City Opera and as Liù (Turandot) at London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden. In March 2012, Latonia Moore made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the title role in Verdi’s Aida,replacing the indisposed Violeta Urmana. Further engagements have taken the artist to Milan, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall in New York, where she appeared in concert performances as Vivetta (L’Arlesiana) and Fidelia (Edgar). As a concert singer, Latonia Moore has worked with conductors such as Lorin Maazel, Daniel Oren and Paavo Järvi, including performances of Gustav Mahler’s Second and Fourth Symphony. This is her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Born in Jamaica, Sir Willard White made his stage debut at New York City Opera after completing his studies at the Juilliard School. Since then, he has appeared at renowned opera houses and concert halls in the U.S. and in Europe and at numerous festivals (Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, Salzburg, Last Night of the Proms in London). His repertoire includes works by, among others, Monteverdi, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Wagner, Debussy and Gershwin. He has also made his mark in modern and contemporary music in compositions by Stravinsky, Bartók, Messiaen, Ligeti, Henze and Adams. The singer had great success with his concert programme An Evening with Willard White – a tribute to Paul Robeson, which he followed with Robeson Re-Explored. In 1995, the bass-baritone was made a “Commander of the British Empire” and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. Since 1991, Sir Willard has performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on several occasions. He was most recently heard in the Philharmonie in June 2008 as the Wanderer in a concert performance of the first act of Wagner’s opera Siegfried, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He then accompanied the orchestra to Aix-en-Provence with the same role, and to the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2009, singing the role of Wotan in the staged production of the second Ring evening under the baton of Sir Simon.

Cape Town Opera is a non profit-making organisation which provides its audiences with first-class performances and its company members with a variety of training and educational programmes. The Cape Town Opera Chorus takes part in the company’s main stage productions, and the 60 chorus members also continue to develop their skills through master classes and individual vocal and acting lessons. The core of the choir forms the Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation Ensemble: 23 singers who also appear as soloists. Under the guidance of its choral conductor Albert Horne, the Cape Town Opera Chorus regularly performs throughout South Africa and has already appeared in European cities such as Paris, Munich, Oslo and Malmö. In a recent tour of the UK, the opera company appeared together with the Mandela Trilogy (Allan Stephenson, Mike Campbell and Péter Louis van Dijk) at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wales, and performed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in several British cities. The ensemble also took part in a choral concert at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. This was followed by a concert with Orchestra Victoria and the Australian National Academy of Music for the reopening of the Hamer Hall in the the Arts Centre Melbourne. With this concert, the Cape Town Opera Chorus make their debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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