Gershwin porgy 4785785

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess – opera in 3 acts (1934-5)
Willard White – Porgy (bass)
Leona Mitchell – Bess (soprano)
Barbara Hendricks – Clara (soprano)
François Clemmons – Sporting Life(tenor)
Arthur Thompson – Jake (baritone)
Florence Quivar – Serena (mezzo)
Barbara Conrad – Maria (mezzo)
McHenry Boatwright – Crown (baritone);
Chorus of the Cleveland Orchestra;
Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. 1975, Masonic Hall, Cleveland, USA
Decca 4785785 [181]

Has there ever been an opera that is more worthy of being taken seriously by recording companies than Gerhswin’s Porgy and Bess? This recording made by Decca under Lorin Maazel’s Cleveland forces (he was the music director there from 1972 to 1982) was the first to give this marvelous work its full operatic consideration, rather than treat it as a Broadway curiosity. There have been several attempts since then to capture the unique essence of this opera in its various iterations, but this original effort presents a formidable challenge to try to topple it from its podium. It was also Decca’s first opera recording to be made in North America.

It is worth pointing out that the full operatic version of Porgy and Bess received its premiere in a private concert performance at Carnegie Hall in the early autumn of 1935. Thereafter, all performances were of the much reduced musical score that premiered in October 1935 at the Alvin Theater on Broadway. All of the revivals that occurred around the world after that date used the musical score rather than the much longer opera version. The full opera version finally saw the light of day again, only with the carefully planned revival by John DeMain and the Houston Grand Opera in 1975. That production garnered such rave reviews that DeMain and his cast were recorded by RCA, in what turned out to be the second recording of the full opera, which was released about two years after this one.

If this recording is anything at all, it is Maazel’s triumph. Not just for having the vision to make it happen, but for investing it with such care in the casting, and ensuring that the recording engineers “got it right” the first time. If you feel that Simon Rattle tends toward self-indulgence in the fairly expansive tempi he favours on the EMI-Glyndebourne recording (review), then Maazel is definitely your man. His taut leadership is direct yet he is sensitive to the more lyrical passages. However, he always presses onward, which does no end of benefit to this sprawling score. A good example of his theatrical savvy is the excitement that he brings to the drums and choral interjections to the opening of the Kittiwah Island scene. Maazel’s interpretation stands precisely at the midpoint between Simon Rattle’s more symphonic view of the score on EMI/Warner, and John DeMain’s engaging Broadwayesque presentation on RCA.

Willard White’s interpretation of the crippled Porgy is nothing short of magnificent. His voice is slightly fresher sounding in 1975 than it was in 1988,and his top notes are a fraction more secure, but his interpretation of Porgy remained fairly consistent. He gives a full, and rather infectious bravado treatment to “Oh, I got penty o’ nuttin” Throughout he purs out secure tone unstintingly, yet he includes numerous theatrical flourishes that give his character life. One example is the slight catch that he creates in his voice when he sings about “the little stars” just before rolling his dice in the First Act.

Leona Mitchell’s Bess is less clearly drawn as a dramatic portrait than White’s Porgy but she sings her music with a regal tonal sheen which is utterly captivating. She has the ability to float her upper voice superbly, while her rich lower register gives an appropriate contrast to Bess’ reprise of the deceased Clara’s “Summertime” .

The supporting roles are given convincing performances by a cogent team of singers. The 27- year old Barbara Hendricks was just emerging as a soprano to watch when this recording was made. Her ravishingly poised account of “Summertime” still stands the test of time 49 years after it was made. Florence Quivar’s smooth as satin tone makes Serena’s lament soar with emotional distress. Barbara Conrad is an earthy no-holds-barred Maria and she contributes a bewitching vignette as the Strawberry Seller in Act Three.

The male supporting cast is just as well managed, topped by François Clemmons’ thoroughly oily Sporting Life. Clemmons is most remembered these days as an actor who had a recurring role as a policeman on a long running children’s TV show, Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood. His performance here of the two most popular songs in the opera will guarantee that his serious stage work will be an equal legacy to his TV persona. He even caps “It ain’t necessarily so” with a gravity-defying top D, a feat which I have not heard anyone else tackle. Arthur Thompson’s Jake balances impressive vocal power with vivid theatricality. McHenry Boatwright’s Crown has a powerful but somewhat throaty baritone which makes a thoroughly unpleasant character sound even more so.

Decca’s engineering team, headed by producer Michael Woolcock, has delivered a rip-roaring theatrical presentation of the opera. This must be one of the very last of Decca’s attempts at a full sonic-stage production for one of their operas, because by the mid-70s it had rather gone out of fashion. Hearing a full assortment of rolling dice, boat whistles, slamming and locking of doors etc., adds to the vivid theatricality of the listening experience. The long opening scene of the opera, with the intimate, tinny sound of Jasbo Brown’s piano, coming from stage right, which is buffered by the ever increasing volume of a wordless chorus. This finally transitions into the delicate singing of Clara’s “Summertime”. This gripping opening to the opera has been presented here with a theatrical impression that is simply awe-inspiring. Maazel and his forces also render the remarkable funeral scene in Serena’s room with strikingly powerful force, which is appropriate for it is one of the musical-dramatic high spots in all of 20th Century opera.

If one would like to experience some fascinating reading about the long, and tortuous history of the various changes to this opera, I can recommend Joseph Horowitz’s ”On My Way”, published by W.W. Norton and Co in 2013. It is a most enjoyable account of the history of Porgy from its origins in DuBose Heyward’s original novel, through to the long delayed Metropolitan Opera premiere of the opera in 1985.

Mike Parr

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music

Other cast
Joela Jones – Jasbo Brown (piano)
William Brown – Peter (tenor)
Robert Snook –Detective (actor)
Christopher Deane – Jim/Lawyer Frazier (baritone)
Ralph Neally – Policeman (actor)
Alpha Floyd – Annie (mezzo)
Samuel Hagan – Robbins/ Crab Seller (tenor)
Alan Leatherman – Coroner (actor)
Barbara Conrad – Strawberry Seller(mezzo)
Isola Jones – Lily (mezzo)
John Buck Mr Archdale(actor)
James Vincent Pickens – Undertaker (tenor)
Donald Zucca – Scipio (actor)