Celebrity Star-Crossed Pairings in “Porgy and Bess” and “Denis & Katya”

Celebrity Star-Crossed Pairings in “Porgy and Bess” and “Denis & Katya”

Celebrity Celebrity is as potent a force in classical music as it is in any other sector of the entertainment industry. Opera companies have been rely

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Celebrity Celebrity is as potent a force in classical music as it is in any other sector of the entertainment industry. Opera companies have been relying on lustrous names to fill seats since the seventeenth century. The scandal surrounding Plácido Domingo—more than twenty women have accused the superstar tenor of sexual harassment or misconduct, which he has denied—makes one wonder whether it would be possible to do without the star system, or, at least, to depend upon it less. There are celebrated singers, soloists, and conductors who find satisfaction in their work without preying on those around them. But human nature is too often warped by power and fame.Several events at the beginning of the fall music season demonstrated the virtue of projects that are driven not by celebrity allure but by a strong artistic purpose. Just as the Domingo crisis was hitting the Met—the singer withdrew from the roster on the eve of scheduled appearances in “Macbeth”—the company introduced a new production of “Porgy and Bess,” its first presentation of the work in thirty years. A brilliant cast of African-American performers infused Gershwin’s score with authority and nuance. In the same week, the New York Philharmonic mounted a stylishly enigmatic double bill of Schoenberg’s monodrama “Erwartung” and Bartók’s one-act opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Most important for the long-term health of the art was the première, at Opera Philadelphia, of Philip Venables’s “Denis & Katya,” based on the real-life story of two Russian teen-agers who died after a standoff with police. With extraordinary sensitivity, Venables examined the fallout of viral Internet fame and media frenzy.When “Porgy” was first staged, in 1935, some classical insiders saw it as a presumptuous gesture on the part of a pop-music interloper. “Gershwin does not even know what an opera is,” the critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote, though he admitted that “Porgy” manages to be an opera nonetheless. Duke Ellington questioned descriptions of “Porgy” as a “Negro opera,” even as he admired the flair of the writing. The libretto, by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, often lapses into stereotype in its depiction of a Gullah community on the Carolina coast. The composer did not help his case when he condescendingly remarked that African-Americans “are ideal for my purpose because they express themselves not only by the spoken word but quite naturally by song and dance.” Testifying in Gershwin’s favor are the dozens of towering black artists, from Ellington to Miles Davis and on to Aretha Franklin, who have made the music their own.The Met elected to treat “Porgy” as a historic object little different from other classics in its repertory. It trusted in Gershwin’s ambition to write a true grand opera—in contrast to Diane Paulus’s 2012 Broadway revival, which attempted a modernized version with a slimmed-down orchestra and a modified text. When “Porgy” is firmly ensconced in the realm of operatic make-believe, it gains a mythic breadth. The doomed love between the disabled, noble-hearted Porgy and the conflicted, drug-addicted Bess takes its place alongside the great star-crossed pairings of opera history.The production team, led by the director James Robinson, opts for stylized naturalism. A skeletonic but sturdy two-story set, designed by Michael Yeargan, gives an airy overview of the homes and the courtyard of Catfish Row. The choreographer Camille A. Brown, the only black member of the team, fills the stage with alternately sinuous and frenzied movement, hinting at more modern styles. Although the staging is unadventurous to the point of being museumlike, it has the benefit of visual clarity and dramatic punch.Black opera singers have long been wary of “Porgy,” because they can easily be typecast by it. Happily, most of the performers have defined themselves in other Met roles. Eric Owens, who sang Porgy, made his breakthrough as Alberich, in Wagner’s “Ring.” Angel Blue, who played Bess, triumphed two seasons ago as Mimi, in “La Bohème.” Of the two, Blue had the better outing on the second night of the run. Her voice blazed as she delineated the character’s warring impulses. Owens lacked heft for much of the evening, although he exuded sharp pathos by the end. The veteran Denyce Graves was a rambunctious, scene-stealing Maria. The villains were cast from strength: Alfred Walker, as the brutish Crown, glowered over every scene in which he appeared, and Frederick Ballentine, as the devious Sportin’ Life, was a footloose, preening delight. Most formidable of all was Latonia Moore, whose bereft, God-fearing Serena spectacularly fused classical and popular styles.David Robertson, in the pit, lavished attention on the interstices of Gershwin’s score—the leitmotivic web that holds the big numbers together. Allusions jumped out: for example, an echo of the pummelling final bar of Strauss’s “Elektra” as Bess goes off to New York with Sportin’ Life. Robertson was using a new, corrected edition of the score, prepared at the University of Michigan. Even if the performance was short on rhythmic propulsion, it honored the complexity of Gershwin’s achievement—and, perhaps surprisingly, its modernity. The final chorus, “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way,” is as buoyant as it is ambiguous: Porgy has resolved to follow Bess to New York, and the music is suitable for whatever fate awaits him.Venables, a forty-year-old British composer of ferocious dramatic instincts, has been having a notable year on the East Coast. In January, he dumbfounded audiences at the Prototype Festival with his nerve-jangling adaptation of Sarah Kane’s experimental play “4.48 Psychosis,” the self-portrait of a woman on the verge of suicide. “Denis & Katya,” which Opera Philadelphia presented as part of its increasingly essential September festival, enters similarly fraught terrain. The opera, scored for two voices and four cellos, is based on an incident that took place in the Pskov region of Russia, in 2016. Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova, fifteen-year-old lovers, barricaded themselves in a relative’s house and live-streamed their final hours to an Internet audience. After they fired a shotgun at a police van, Russian special forces stormed the house. Police maintain that the two killed themselves, but the official story is disputed.Contemporary opera has touched on online mayhem before. Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” mapped the thrill and the danger of self-exposure on the Internet. What is remarkable about “Denis & Katya” is how it explores the psychological roots of our fixation on such sad and gruesome cases. Venables and his regular collaborator, the American director Ted Huffman, do this by divulging their own thought processes as they worked on the piece. Texted conversations between the two are projected on a screen, with electronic beeps punctuating each word as it is typed out. (“4.48” used a similar device.) They talk about interviewing eyewitnesses and obtaining video; at the same time, they wonder whether the entire exercise is voyeuristic. When getting rights to the material proves difficult, they conclude it’s for the best: “i think it’s stronger if we don’t show it they can go home and google it if they want to.”Indeed, the teen-agers’ faces are never shown, nor do they speak. The audience must assemble a mental picture as the agile vocal soloists—Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller—sing and speak the fragmentary testimonies of friends, teachers, neighbors, medics, and journalists. We do get one prolonged glimpse of Strugi Krasnye, the town where the story unfolds. Toward the end of the piece, the screen is filled with a video shot from a train as it pulls out of the town station and trundles through a barren countryside. In the wake of that eerie interlude, Venables’s cello score, which has leaned on nervously skittering textures, takes a wrenching turn into neo-Baroque lament. Venables’s way of building tension through minimal means is astonishing throughout.Venables and Huffman are too canny and self-aware to offer tidy moral lessons at the end, but the commentary of a journalist comes close to summing up this small-scale human disaster, and many larger ones besides: “We see so much now. It’s a constant theater. It makes you numb. . . . You get used to not helping. You get used to watching.” ♦
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