American Idolatry 

The L.A. Opera’s Porgy and Bess at the Music Center and making music with Morton Subotnick

Wednesday, May 16 2007

Getting It Right

Of a couple of dozen productions I have attended of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the one currently at the Music Center (through this weekend) is by some distance the finest and the most enjoyable. It contains the most of George’s music, in an opera often cut, properly treated by both vocal and orchestral forces under John DeMain, who, it might as well be admitted, knows how the music goes better than anyone else alive. The staging, by Francesca Zambello, has no blind, deaf or dull spot; it takes off at a breathless pace at the rise of the curtain and doesn’t perceptibly stop for breath (or allow any of us to do the same) for its approximately three hours’ length. That’s about the same number of hours as last week’s Merry Widow, by the way, whose demands on your time, you could swear, came to twice as long.

“Porgy lived in the golden age,” begins the novel by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, which gave us the stage play and, eventually, the opera, “. . . an age when men, not yet old, were boys in an ancient, beautiful city that time had forgotten but not yet destroyed.” Peter J. Davison’s stage sets have speeded up time’s processes somewhat. His Catfish Row, updated to the “early 1950s” from 1928, is a true slum. Doors hang from their hinges; the roller coaster on Kittiwah Island, where the Picnic Scene takes place, is a scrapheap. The spirit of the joyous community remains, however, and Porgy has inherited its gold. He is one of opera’s grandest personages, no less complex for his humble origins. The role was sung with noble resonance by Kevin Short in the first of the two alternating casts, the one I saw on opening night.

click to enlarge The L.A. Operas Porgy and Bess (Photo by Robert Millard)
  • The L.A. Operas Porgy and Bess (Photo by Robert Millard)

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The Bess that night was a slithery, slinky bundle named Morenike Fadayomi, with pure, radiant high notes that lit up the house. She’s a versatile actress all the way from “happy dust”–sniffing floozie to adoring bedmate. You have to wonder, as Porgy becomes rooted in the serious repertory alongside Figaro and the Ring, how generations of singers come to deal with the work’s special vernacular. Years ago, the first recordings of this music were by white Metropolitan Opera stars, and the trials of hearing their “Bess, you is my woman now” were fairly excruciating. Now Ms. Fadayomi, born in London, raised in Nigeria and Switzerland, performs Aida and Mimi in Germany, yet sings Bess on our stage as if born to the part. I heard nothing but superb and wonderfully idiomatic voices that night, including Angela Simpson’s showstopping “My man’s gone now,” Ashley Faatolia’s delightful walk-through as the Crab Man and Jermaine Smith’s incomparable rubber-legged routines as Sportin’ Life.

Matters of idiom aside, this was, simply put, a night of truly great opera, made especially so by Francesca Zambello’s stage-sure direction, in which even the cherishable small moments — the comings and goings of the street peddlers, the placing of scolding wives on various levels of Davison’s rickety set — left their ineradicable mark. The staging of the hurricane, with the terrified chorus clumped together in center stage and the scenery blowing every which way to the tremendous thuddings in the orchestra (probably amplified, but so what?), was something to carry home and relive. It made it possible to forgive Ms. Zambello, at long last, for her absurdity-studded 1991 staging of Berlioz’s The Trojans, in our opera company’s greener years.

Mort on MortI’ve known Morton Subotnick longer than any star in the new-music galaxy. In the 1950s, he was a freelance clarinetist in San Francisco, studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills and feeding me precious backstage gossip from the San Francisco Symphony during its bad old days under Enrique Jordá, for my crits on KPFA. I ran into him in New York one day, when he was composing big electronic works for Nonesuch Records — symphonies, almost — with names like Silver Apples of the Moon. He told me about his new job at a school back in California with funding from, of all people, Walt Disney, and we had a good laugh over that.

I visited one of CalArts’ new-music festivals, and over coffee, Mort told me why life in California was better than anywhere else — partly because nobody took the critics seriously. He was composing what seemed to me pure magic: music for instruments and computers, with the instruments activating the technology so that music retained its relationship to a live performer and wasn’t just a matter of staring at loudspeakers. I looked in on his classes, watched some of his students’ work with mixed audio and visual media. I think it was Mort more than anyone else who convinced me that the air in California was what I, too, wanted to breathe.

More recently, Mort has produced some excellent educational CD-ROMS, in a series called “Making Music.” Kids get to construct scales, rhythms, melodies. They learn about variations, at various grades of complexities. I have to confess: I’ve spent an evening or two “making music.”

At the season’s final “Piano Spheres” concert in Zipper Hall, Vicki Ray’s program ended with Subotnick’s The Other Piano, a piece for piano with surround-sound processing. The work is “other” to Morton Feldman’s 1977 piece called, simply, Piano; both run approximately half an hour. Vicki played, while Mort, at his laptop, captured her notes and formed harmonies that floated through the hall out of surrounding speakers. The music was mostly slow and dreamlike, not at all Feldmanesque, purely the other Mort. We, sitting there, floated, surrounded, inside the sound. Talk about your magic.

The Other Piano will be released this summer on a Mode DVD in 5.1 multichannel: something to do the dishes to, or to lose yourself in.

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