George Gershwin was one of great musical talents of his times. For his melodic invention, his songs and melodies became popular and made him rich, but his basic ambition was to be regular composer with full symphonic possibilities. Important part of these aspirations was opera Porgy and Bess. Although Gershwin himself called this work “folk opera”, it turned out to be probably the most important opera in American history. The power of this music was based on various influences in one balanced work of art. Romantic composers created many stylized works to establish national musical basis for many European cultures. In United States cultural situation was more complicated and different influences were like a patchwork of various ingredients. This way Dvorak composed imagined American identity in his New World Symphony. This was always the problem of ideological balance between idiomatic motifs and rhythms. So Gershwin made one step further and melted elements into something overriding differences between cultures and trying to create universal American musical idiom. Although his output was not as numerous as other composers, he has strong position in collective memory. Porgy and Bess and other Gershwin works begin the process of establishing all American music.
In 1959 Gershwin’s opera was filmed as the musical movie directed by Otto Preminger with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in title roles and Sammy Davis, Jr. as Sportin’ Life, Pearl Bailey as Maria and Brock Peters as Crown. It was last picture produced by Samuel Goldwyn and according to his plans it has to be a jewel in the crown. Problems begin with appointing the director and actor cast. Actors were dubbed by opera singers, but Leontyne Price refused saing “no body, no voice”. Two main characters we sung by Adele Addison and Robert McFerrin. Problems with cast was also due to rejections of playing roles actors considered as demeaning. This sheds some light on the approach to human rights in America of the fifties. Due to legal issues the movie voice of Sammy Davis, Jr. has been placed on soundtrack album by Cab Calloway.
|George Gershwin – Porgy and Bess (1959)|
Making this movie was great dream of Samuel Goldwyn since he saw original Broadway stage production in 1935. But in 1959 this was already a blockbuster and every artist in the crew has private interests and ambitions. It was also possible to hear Porgy and Bess in many different renditions, jazz, popular and symphonic. Since first recording of complete opera by Columbia Masterworks in 1951, it was recorded by Mel Thormé and Frances Faye in 1956, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, Miles Davis with Gil Evans Orchestra in 1958 and Sammy Davis, Jr. with Carmen McRae in 1959. Movie was nominated to three Oscars but win only one Oscar and a Golden Globe, soundtrack album won Grammy award, but whole project was not enough successful in critics reception and in sales. Also Gershwin family had not accepted the picture and after 15 years licence period led to the withdrawal it off the distribution.
Among many problems with the movie, the musical style of the score was one of issues. It was a matter of differences between producer who want to preserve original composition style and director who was against opera style and suggested a jazz style arrangement. Musical score, supervised by André Previn and Ken Darby and conducted by André Previn became an effort to satisfy both, Goldwyn and Preminger. And it is quite accurate attempt to render Gershwin’s musical ideas in a way consistent with the aesthetics of the fifties. Vocal performances by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addinson are great, sung by beautiful voices and with perfect balance between professional vocal culture and esthetics of folk opera. Also the movie appearances of Sammy Davis, Jr. as well as Cab Calloway’s recordings are phenomenal and close to primary ideas of Sportin’ Life’s character. Over half of the century after it was produced, in 2011 Samuel Goldwyn’s Porgy and Bess considered as an “overlooked masterpiece” had been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of Library of Congress as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”.