Page 45

By John Rizzo

F

Italian Italian

Style

or many years I believed that opera, Morenike Fadayomi, Bess as a living, breathing art form had Photo by Karin Cooper died with Puccini, and I expressed this sentiment in writing many times. It’s never fun to admit that you’re wrong, but now’s as ensembles and choruses are usually expressions of emotion. This is exactly good a time as any. I had based my opinion on the case in Porgy and Bess. Interestingly, some famous operas of the past the so-called operas that I was aware of, pieces (non-Italian ones), like Faust, Carmen and The Bartered Bride, initially that I still believe have little to recommend were produced as singspiels, with the arias or musical numbers alternating them in true creative music or drama. Then, with extended passages of spoken dialogue. When it was noted that these several years ago, I saw a video recording of works had the potential to be very successful, the Italian opera model Porgy and Bess in its original operatic version was copied, with musical recitatives replacing the spoken parts. Porgy of 1935. I had always respected the genius and Bess initially suffered the opposite fate, with Gershwin’s beautiful of George Gershwin and I absolutely love melodic recitatives being transformed into plain speech. Fortunately, with his songs and have had the honor to play in the current intense interest in this opera (it is being performed by a number the orchestra for his Rhapsody in Blue and of major opera companies this season including those of Chicago, New Concerto in F. In my view, he is the greatest York and Baltimore) the prospects look good that all of Gershwin’s music Gordon Hawkins, Porgy, American composer, bar none. But I never for this piece will be heard regularly from now on. thought of him as an opera composer. Other Italian musical devices also abound in this opera. For example, Photo by Karin Cooper Of course I was aware of the wonderful tunes each principal is associated with a brief melodic theme that derives from from Porgy and Bess, like “Summertime,” “I one of the character’s arias – not one of those longwinded leitmotifs of got plenty o’ nuttin’,” “Beth, you is my woman now,” “I love you Porgy” Wagner that supposedly is rife with psychological implications, but a and “It ain’t necessarily so,” but I didn’t know the whole piece as an opera. I reference to a particular character that holds chiefly melodic interest, ala grew up knowing Porgy and Bess from the Cheryl Crawford 1942 musical Verdi or Puccini. Then there is the use of the ritornello, a repeated melody version and the Samuel Goldwyn movie of 1959. As a musical it was just played by the orchestra, not sung, which connects certain vocal passages so-so compared to others. I paid no attention to the Houston Grand Opera and usually establishes some kind of dramatic mood. Gershwin also production of 1976, nor even to the Metropolitan Opera premiere of 1985, anticipates his arias with melodic fragments, and when an aria is sung, assuming that they were revivals of the musical. This was a grave failing it is often followed by a chorus and then sounded again. Perhaps most on my part and I regret it deeply. When I finally experienced the work as importantly, all the characters (except for the white characters, who only Gershwin conceived it, I was flabbergasted by just how brilliant a piece speak and never sing) sing in the traditional Italian bel canto style. could have escaped public acclaim for so long. I also noted how genuine Also following in the Italian opera tradition is the presentation of American music could be incorporated so perfectly into an unmistakably inventive and fresh music, and here Gershwin supplied music that was so Italian style. creative and compelling that it was taking the world by storm. American Clearly, Gershwin was thinking about traditional Italian opera when music could only have come from America. Here and nowhere else the he composed Porgy and Bess. Like so many operas it is based on a syncopated African rhythms blended with traditional European dance novel (1924), then a play (1927). The writer, and subsequent librettist, rhythms to produce an irresistible beat. At the same time the African Dubose Heyward (Ira Gershwin also collaborated with the lyrics) was a pentatonic scale merged with the European diatonic scale, resulting in very prosperous insurance and real estate salesman from South Carolina the distinctive “blue notes” that characterize jazz and popular American who had a decided literary bent and was fascinated by African-American songs. Much of this process occurred in New York’s fabled Tinpan Alley, culture. When Gershwin began composing, he lived in Charleston, S.C., where George Gershwin worked for years as a song plugger. His music so he could observe the African-American community there, much as literally throbs with the new American sound. As a matter of fact when he Mascagni did with the folk of the heel went to Europe to “study,” no less a master of Italy while working on Cavelleria composer than Maurice Ravel refused to rusticana. Compositionally, Gershwin give him lessons. Noting that Gershwin follows in the footsteps of Puccini was making a huge amount of money for (think of the second act of La bohème his songs and shows Ravel suggested that or the third act of Manon Lescaut, or Gershwin give him lessons. countless other Puccini moments), Thank you, Lyric Opera, for putting this using lots of parlando, employing truly great opera on your stage. I have no an eclectic potpourri of distinctly doubt that it will soon be in the standard recognizable harmonic approaches repertoire! and offering a kind of continuous song that occasionally transitions into wellPorgy and Bess performances defined arias, ensembles and choruses. at Lyric Opera: The most common Italian feature of November: 18, 21, 23, 26 this opera is Gershwin’s use of recitative December: 3, 5, 9, 12, 15, 19 and aria. Traditionally, the musical speech that is recitative is the vehicle Lynch, Fadayomi, Porgy and Bess Photo by R. Millard. for development of the plot, while arias, Winter 08/09 / AMICI 43

Mario Batali  

17th Edition

Mario Batali  

17th Edition

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