The inextricable link between the African American and Jewish community was never more evident than at the Monday night October 23rd Metropolitan Opera Premiere of “Porgy and Bess” which chronicles the struggles of a black neighborhood in Charleston South Carolina. The music composed by Jewish brothers George and Ira Gershwin gave rise to American classics “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. The disabled Porgy and the isolated addicted Bess are paradigmatic of the trials and tribulations Black America was forced to endure during this period. 1935, the year when Porgy premiered at the Alvin Theatre was also an extremely turbulent time for the Jews who would soon encounter the greatest genocide known to man.
In fact the Opera had its first European premiere at The Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen in 1943 at which time the Nazi occupied country required all white actors to appear in blackface. After 22 sold out performances the Nazis closed the production. The Gershwin brothers immortal works span the classical, jazz and theatrical worlds. Upon George’s untimely death in 1937 his brother Ira picked up the pieces by providing the lyrics to his unmatched tunes.
Tonight was the first time this opera has been performed since 1985, when the Met opened Porgy and Bess with accompaniment by James Levine for 54 performances through 1990. This updated production by James Robinson with David Robertson conducting was a sight to behold with Angel Blue as Bess and Eric Owens as Porgy captivating the crowd with a lugubriousness that could be felt throughout the magnanimous opera house. The sold-out three and a half hour performance left some in tears as the real life struggles of this indigent community was experienced firsthand.
The sets were thankfully lavish with unfortunately only three changes and a large supporting group of singers that added to the drama of the evening. The crowd was starry with Jill Hennessy, Laverne Cox, Courtney Vance, Gloria Reuben, and Maggie Gyllenhaal joining philanthropists Jean Shafiroff, Ann Ziff, Kalliope Karella, and Sana Sabbagh with politicians Michael Bloomberg and Wilbur Ross sprinkled about. In fact Vance and Cox took a red eye from California straight from the Emmys to experience this once in a lifetime evening.
The fashion was a sight to behold with Jean Shafiroff in an extravagantly layered Couture Victor De Souza, Sana Sabbagh in an Oscar 2020 and Ann Ziff in a splendid floral custom gown. Pat Cleveland, rocked the house in a hooded orange sequined get-up that was edgy and exciting. This supermodel hasn’t lost her style as she commands every room she enters with a gracious confidence that says “I’m here.” The mix of the crowd which included actors, businessmen, models and art dealers is what made this event one of the social highlights of the year.
At 9:30 PM guests who had paid a minimum of $2,000 headed to the promenade of The David Koch Theater, instead of the usual tent, to fraternize with their friends and pay homage to the outstanding cast. Dinner of shrimp and salmon was served along with a chocolate fondue. General manager Peter Gelb announced that $4.9 million was raised and praised the cast and crew for their hard work and determination. Gelb revealed that this production has been five years in the making and nary a detail was excluded.
For opera purists in the crowd, some left slightly disappointed at the theatrical nature of the evening; and yet the overwhelming majority were enthused beyond imagination. The importance of varying the repertoire of a company cannot be underestimated-art is all about taking chances and this time they hit a home-run.