At first glance, it looks as though urban sprawl has overtaken Catfish Row, a huge and teeming compound spanning the 100-foot proscenium at Radio City Music Hall, where "Porgy and Bess" opened a five-week engagement (through May 15, to be precise) last evening. But soon, we begin sorting out the main characters and their voices in this most massive production ever of the Gershwin folk opera. And once again, we fall beneath its spell.
One might wish to hear it pure, truly live; but since that's impossible in this enormous hall, much larger than the Met, an unprecedentedly sophisticated setup utilizing hidden amplifiers along the side walls in conjunction with an innovative "electronic reflecting energy system" - consisting of a dozen or more globular "satellites" suspended on high - is capable of distributing seamless, extraordinarily lifelike sound throughout the house, providing the engineer is on his toes. The "satellites," serving the same purpose attempted with compensating "clouds" in concert halls, block wall reverberations. And since everything is controlled by a sound man riding a console at the front of the second mezzanine, proper balancing of individual and massed voices, as well as the pit instruments, depends almost entirely on him.
At the first of two previews I caught, from a 17th-row seat on the main floor, the 56-piece orchestra frequently overpowered the singers, whose voices seemed to swell and recede and, an added annoyance, render much of the recitative unintelligible. But on a second visit, the sound was fine in all parts of the house - front and rear auditorium and in all three mezzanines. Also - and this is important to consider - while the singers' facial expressions can't be studied by the naked eye from the back of the house, the show as a whole assumes a more pleasing perspective from the rear, especially from the mezzanines.
There are four sets of rotating principals in leading roles: four Porgys, four Besses, and four Serenas. There are, also, two Sportin' Lifes, two Jakes and two Marias, and understudies sometimes fill the secondary roles. For example, Priscilla Baskerville, the first Bess I heard in this production, sang Clara (a relatively small role, but the one with "Summertime") on my second visit. And for some reason, whereas Robert Mosley Jr.'s crippled beggar of a Porgy slid about on padded leg braces when not in his goat-drawn cart, Michael V. Smartt propelled himself on a conventional beggar's dolly.
I could detect neither a great Porgy nor a great Bess, though all four singers were satisfactory. Baskerville has a lovely high register, but her voice weakens below the staff, while Naomi Moody's Bess, though vivid, gets somewhat shrill in the upper regions. The best baritone was Gregg Baker's as one of the two Crowns, and his large frame and vigorous use of it lent added conviction to his performance. Of the two Serenas heard, Shirley Baines was the most in character, particularly in the stunning aria "My Man's Gone Now." Regina McConnell's Serena was well sung, but with the cultivated style of the concert artist. And while I enjoyed Larry Marshall's Sportin' Life, a performance carried over from the splendid 1976 revival, I was equally taken with Herbert Lee Rawlins Jr.'s account of this show-stopping part. Donald Walter Kase's Jake, Byron Onque's Jim, and especially Denice Woods' beautifully rendered Strawberry Woman's call and Gwendolyn Shepherd's wonderful scold of a Maria were other assets in this cast of 90 singers, dancers, and, in the case of Larry Storch's Detective and Richard Easley's Coroner, the company's two white and nonsinging actors.
Jack O'Brien has once again directed this production, and superbly, while George Faison has provided excellently stylized choreography. Douglas W. Schmidt has designed the scenery - the three varied Catfish Row dwelling blocks, the middle one revolving and unfolding to represent the interior of Serena's home, and all three retracting to reveal the Kittiwah Island scene in this two-act presentation of the full three-hour work.
Warts and all, "Porgy and Bess" is, for me, our one truly magnificent American opera. Lacking the training or sophistication of, say, a Floyd, Thomson, Blitzstein, Ward or others, the one-time teenage song-plugger and subsequent writer of musical-comedy songs inspiredly ignored his limitations to vault into areas more timid souls would never have dared enter. And in so doing, Gershwin created, among several concert works, this enduringly muscular and galvanizing opera - the most direct, melodious and emotionally powerful of all our native operas.
I often think that if our major opera companies, so dependent on 19th-century "white" grand opera, were able to accomodate black singers in sufficient numbers, "Porgy and Bess" would long since have become a staple of the repertoire. But maybe it's better this way, approached freshly at intervals with new singers and, in the long run, being enjoyed by greater numbers of music lovers than most of Wagner, Verdi or Puccini. It is a work of genius, with a score not black, not white, not European, not Southern American, but pure Gershwin.
Sherwin M. Goldman's monumental production of George Gershwin's Broadway opera Porgy and Bess, which officially opened at Radio City Music Hall last night, makes history on various levels. But then Porgy and Bess has never been shy of making history.
This is the first time that this kind of show has ever played the Music Hall - and presumably it is a harbinger of the style of production its new executive producer, Bernard Gersten, intends to stage.
Many cities - Moscow and Paris for two notable examples - have enormous cultural palaces, seating about 6000 people and offering major cultural events, particularly ballet and opera, to the mass audience, largely tourists and partly residents.
It has occurred to me for years that New York would have to acquire such a pleasure palace. This production of Porgy and Bess goes far in convincing me that we already have one under our very eyes.
Porgy looks good - no, it looks far better than good - and it sounds okay. Just about okay. For if the Music Hall is to be used for any continuing extent as a kind of people's opera house it will require more acoustical work. But, as they say in Porgy, we're on our way.
Goldman's devoted restoration of Gershwin's masterpiece, superbly staged by Jack O'Brien, was, of course, a Broadway hit in 1976. Now further enlarged, with Gerhswin's orchestrations fully realized finally for the first time, and placed down on the enormous Music Hall stage with a new and wonderful setting by Douglas W. Schmidt, Goldman and O'Brien have surpassed themselves.
The full grandeur of Gershwin's original concept is here completed. What a sensational opera this is. It has always been regarded - quite wrongly - as simply a Broadway musical. It was always something much more, and indeed a pointer to the future of both the Broadway musical and opera itself.
It suggested that the living future of opera - or serious musical theater if you balk at the word opera - was to be in the hands of men like Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Opera, as created by purely classically oriented composers, was deader than a dead dodo, despite - what Gershwin could never have forseen - the final classical gyrations of Benjamin Britten, and a brisk brief coda by Igor Stravinsky. Classic opera was to become a superb fossilized art - the preserve of interpreters rather than creative artists.
In this new staging of Porgy even more than in the previous version at the Uris Theater, it emerges as grand opera and grand popular entertainment.
The tale of the crippled Porgy and his love for the honest but wayward Bess has all the dimensions of one of those classic stories, like Troilus and Cressida, concerned with a man's deathless love for a mortally faithless woman, but it also is triumphantly assertive about man's indomitable will to survive.
Porgy - one of nature's losers never gives up. His love is perfectly unwavering. And at the end, despite Bess running off to the sin and glamour of New York, the spirit of the piece is not her perhaps temporary affections - it has happened before - but Porgy setting off for New York in a goat cart to find her.
O'Brien is aided and more than abetted by the remarkable Mr. Schmidt, who gives us a steamy picture of Charleston's Catfish Row in some kind of designer's dream, bringing Porgy and Bess to extraordinarily vivid life. The movement - George Faison is the choreographer - is in itself a whirlpool focus on this human microcosm.
Of course in the final count what matters about Porgy is the music. The intricate mosaic web of the score is, in itself, fascinating. Popular forms have rarely been used more adroitly, more subtly, more beautifully.
Simply because this is an opera - and the vocal demands are of operatic intensity - all the major roles have to be cast three or even four times. There are, for example, four Porgys and four Besses, two Sportin' Lifes and two Crowns.
I have so far seen two casts - both of which, in slightly different fashions, were excellent.
Admittedly the first time I ever saw Porgy and Bess, in an admittedly corrupt and abbreviated version, it had William Warfield as Porgy (I once heard the splendid Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, sing much of the role in concert), Leontyne Price as Bess and Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life. They were not just excellent, they were incredible.
But the present cast maintains a wonderful sense of dramatic spontaneity that is the peculiar gift of O'Brien's approach to the sung word.
The cast that appeared last night included Michael V. Smart as Porgy, Naomi Moody as Bess, Larry Marshall as Sportin' Life and Gregg Baker as Crown. All of them handled the operatic demands of the score with total ease and also act with a supreme conviction.
Another cast I caught had Robert Mosely Jr. as Porgy and an exceptional Priscilla Baskerville as Bess. I am sure that whatever cast you see, the musical standards - under conductor C. William Harwood - will be maintained.
What is important is the overwhelming spectacle and that story and score poised lightly on the summit of the American musical theater.
Whatever one chooses to call it - I say grand opera - ''Porgy and Bess'' is simply the greatest score ever to have been produced by the Broadway theater. True, ''Porgy and Bess'' is not the greatest piece of musical drama Broadway has ever seen - or the most profound social comment - but when one is listening to George Gershwin at the peak of his genius, who cares?
Gershwin's music - in which Old Europe rubs shoulders with the Deep South, Basin Street, Harlem, 52d Street and both Tin Pan and Shubert Alleys - is the very melting pot of American culture in this century. And even when the composer fails to live up to his ambitions, the score is still moving: it's impossible to listen to ''Porgy and Bess'' now without wondering how much further Gershwin might have taken our musical theater if his life hadn't ended two years after this work's 1935 premiere.
That we now know ''Porgy and Bess'' in all its glory is largely attributable to the producer, Sherwin M. Goldman, the director, Jack O'Brien, and the Houston Grand Opera, who seven years ago heroically mounted the first Broadway ''Porgy and Bess'' to use the virtually complete score as Gershwin intended it to be heard. Now, Mr. Goldman and Mr. O'Brien have unveiled a new ''Porgy and Bess'' at Radio City Music Hall, and the good news is that the high standards of the 1976 version have been maintained. This production differs from the last mainly in that it is grander: there's a larger Catfish Row (maybe even larger than Charleston's), a bigger chorus, a more spectacular hurricane and a 56-piece orchestra (under the superb direction of C. William Harwood).
Yet there's bad news that can't be ignored. Wonderful as it seems in principle to see an American monument like ''Porgy and Bess'' in an American architectural monument of the same vintage, the fact is that the Music Hall is not the ideal home for this show. At 5,800 seats, this house could nearly accommodate the combined capacities of the largest theater on Broadway (the Uris, where ''Porgy'' was last time) and the Metropolitan Opera House (where ''Porgy'' is scheduled for the future). Though the production has been beautifully cast and staged, it loses both musical and dramatic immediacy as a consequence of its environment.
The erosion takes place on two fronts, visual and aural. Because of the huge dimensions of the stage, especially its apron, the performers seem distant even from the near-front of the orchestra. The scenery, designed by Douglas W. Schmidt and expertly lighted by Gilbert V. Hemsley Jr., is first-rate, but it's hard to find the focus of any scene featuring more than a handful of players.
The sonic glitches are considerable. The Music Hall is using a highly sophisticated system of amplification that doesn't produce the harsh electronic blare of many Broadway musicals, but that nevertheless distorts the score. There's a lack of theatrical presence to the voices, as if they were all emanating from the same spot, that makes it difficult to locate who is singing on stage. Subtleties of both voice and orchestration are frequently lost, particulary in the upper and lower registers.
It is also difficult to hear some of the DuBose Heyward-Ira Gershwin lyrics. As critics were invited to visit ''Porgy and Bess'' over the past week, in order to sample several of the rotating casts of principal players, I had the opportunity to see the show twice, from various parts of the house. At both previews I attended, Act II came through more clearly than Act I. I also found that the sound quality was somewhat superior upstairs (even at the very top mezzanine) than down.
Chances are that there will continue to be variations from night to night, song to song, seat to seat, cast to cast. There was a moderate pick-up in audibility between my first and second visits, and one prays for more improvement still. But to be on the safe side, read the less familiar passages in the libretto, particularly the choral numbers and recitative, before going to the theater. Bring opera glasses, too.
These serious caveats noted, one can go on to applaud the people who have mounted this classic with such love and care. What Mr. O'Brien achieves in his direction - abetted by George Faison's vernacular choreography - is as much psychological realism as the story and traffic will bear. In the process, he considerably defangs the once widely held criticism that ''Porgy and Bess'' patronizes blacks. What we find is not a disguised minstrel soap opera, but a saga of brave people fighting for a better life against the cruel economic and natural ravages of the Depression.
At its best, the production combines poignant images and powerful music to deeply moving effect: when the ostracized Bess first takes refuge with the crippled beggar Porgy to the strains of ''Night time, day time''; when the mourning Serena is shrouded with a black veil at the climax of the aria ''My Man's Gone Now''; when Bess falls to her knees to reach out to Porgy in ''Bess, You Is My Woman Now''; when Bess and the pimp Sportin' Life dance with sinful abandon under a crimson sky on their way to the boat that's leaving soon for New York. Virtually all of the motifs and themes are set up by the jazz dance - a kind of ''Slaughter on Catfish Row'' - that accompanies the low-down ''Jasbo Brown'' piano blues that opens the show.
Both casts I saw were deep in talent. It was frustrating to watch gifted singers sometimes pour their guts into an acoustical vacuum, but almost everyone broke the sound barrier sooner or later. The superior leads were Michael V. Smartt and Naomi Moodi, who officially opened the show last night. Mr. Smartt is a younger, more self-possessed Porgy than one usually sees, and Miss Moodi, though lacking the sexual magnetism that Clamma Dale brought to the part last time around, is a hearty and fervent actress. Larry Marshall, repeating his sinuous Sportin' Life of 1976, and Loretta Holkmann, as the spiky Maria, were notably successful at making themselves heard at all times.
Given how complete it is in all other respects, it's a shame that one can't always hear and see everyone in this ''Porgy and Bess.'' But such is the size of Gershwin's opera that even the vast Music Hall doesn't so much diminish it as fight it to a draw.