I’m a purist. I admit that. I prefer my Beethoven fast and furious, the only version of Rhapsody in Blue that I have or will ever perform is the original Paul Whiteman Jazz Band version, and God help me but every time a Canadian asks me about their national treasure Glenn Gould my blood pressure goes through the roof. But what about opera? Specifically, what about Porgy & Bess?
Here’s the deal as I know it: Gershwin wrote Porgy & Bess in 1935. As is usual with Gershwin he over-wrote – that is, he put everything that he thought might work into the score. The theory was that the off-Broadway runs would allow him to edit and tighten the work. This he did, which he notated in his score. The problem is that he had the bad taste to go and get a brain hemorrhage, and so in 1937 the great American song master was dead. To make matters worse the score that Gershwin published was the original 1935 no-holds-barred version of P&B. So all of Gershwin’s amendments and such never made it into the published universe. This story is outlined here by our friends @ National Public Radio. Now this all is actually relevant to my life, as I am conducting a new production of P&B with the Opera de Lyon, France in May, 2008.
The fact that Gershwin did some serious editing to P&B will not come as a shock to anyone who has studied the opera. The first act works nicely, but once you get into the 2nd act you run into some problems. Frankly it’s a rambling mess, something that continues right on into the first couple scenes of the 3rd act. So the question remains – what to do with the opera?
This is my take – opera composers have tweaked and edited their works right up until they’ve been put into the ground. Some have so many versions of their operas that it’s an outright crap shoot as to what version one should really perform (i.e., anything by Rossini). At this point it really becomes personal preference. But when possible I always try to adhere to the basic outlines of the composer, and so if you come to Lyon in May, ’08, please come hear our production of P&B. Odds are it’s going to very closely follow the notes Gershwin left in his score during the productions of 1936, as opposed to the score that was published from 1935. Once I’ve completely hammered these ideas out I’m sure I’ll blog about them more, and as we get closer to the production day I’ll start regularly talking about the whole “how do you put an opera together” topic. That’s sure to be a good 2 months worth of blogging right there.