Porgy and Bess -- Let me make it very clear that the "Porgy and Bess" on the EuroArts label is not the rewritten version that received so many pans in 2013. This DVD holds a 2009 performance given at the San Francisco Opera, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain. And it is breathtaking!
Running at 158 minutes, it contains more of Gershwin’s score than I have ever heard in a stage production. It does leave out the seldom done "Jazzbo Brown" introductory scene, and I am not quite sure what other small chunks of the original. But when the show opened in 1935, it ran about four hours and its creators had to take 45 minutes away for the rest of the run.
Zambello starts off a bit amateurishly by having Clara (Angel Blue) standing downstage center to sing "Summertime" to the audience and not to the baby in her arms. And Porgy’s final exit to find Bess could have been more dramatic. But every moment in between is top-notch. And I do not use "breathtaking" very often in my reports.
Eric Owens is a perfect Porgy, this time with a crutch and not a goat cart or even a small flat surface on wheels. This makes him less helpless but easier to get around the stage. His voice is tremendous. Laquita Mitchell, in a red hairpiece, is a vulnerable Bess, believably promising to give up "happy dust" one moment and snatching a bag of it the next. Chauncey Packer’s Sportin’ Life is a bit too snakelike, but I feel he is only following the director or choreographer. Lester Lynch, both physically and vocally, makes an excellent villain as Crown.
The secondary roles are treated with great understanding and respect: Serena (Karen Slack), Maria (Alteouise deVaughn), Jake (Eric Green), Robbins (Michael Austin), and too many others to list here. The white policeman is nothing but a bigot, the coroner is tolerant. And of course, these white characters get only to speak, never to sing.
Zambello does not allow the audience a chance to applaud the sales pitches of the Honey man, the Crab man, and the Strawberry woman. Why not?
The singing in general is of a high order, and the subtitles are most welcome.
There is a second disc with only 30 minutes of interviews, a trend which I regret if one has to pay extra for it. There are some comments worth hearing.
Desert Song -- Sigmund Romberg’s "The Desert Song" (1926) ran for 471 performances and was adapted on film in 1929, 1943 (the Nazis are the villains here) and in color in 1953. In 1955, it was shown on television as part of the Max Liebman Presents series; and that abridged version is now part of the invaluable series of DVDs of vintage television shows from VAI.
This 75-minute black-and-white version drops two comic characters and their songs, but keeps what is left intact (although I cannot vouch for the dialogue). Those familiar with "The Mark of Zorro," "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and even Superman will spot the creaky plot in which a hero poses as a coward. Here Pierre (Nelson Eddy), the son of a French General (Otto Kruger), falls for the beautiful Margot (Gale Sherwood). Disguised as the bane of the French, the Red Shadow, Pierre kidnaps her; and what there is of a creaky plot develops along very predictable lines.
But the essence of "The Desert Song" consists of "One Alone," "Romance," the title song, and some lesser but pleasing numbers. There is a good deal of dance, a bit too much, considering how much plot had to be cut; but Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander justify the time devoted to the ballet.
Eddy is not complimented by close-ups, but his baritone is still pleasant. Sherwood is described as his post-MacDonald partner. I find her easier to take than her predecessor. It is good to see the old opera buffa basso Salvatore Baccaloni as a Moroccan bigwig, but it is not easy to understand what he is saying.
The picture is a kinescope (a camera filming a television screen) and the sound is obviously not up to today’s standards. But it is such fun and a must for lovers of the old romantic times when Romberg gave the people what they wanted.
Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.