George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" is an American opera that opened in New York in 1935 and has several songs I've been familiar with for as long as I can remember, including "Summertime," "Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin'," "It ain't necessarily so," and "Bess, you is my woman now."
Actually, George Gershwin is credited with writing only the music for "Porgy and Bess." The lyrics are credited to George's brother Ira Gershwin and an author named DuBose Heyward. The opera was based on the 1927 stage play "Porgy" written by that author and his wife Dorothy Heyward.
Hollywood released a big-screen "Porgy and Bess" in 1959 that starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge with dubbed singing voices. Years later, a couple of versions of the opera were made for television, and I'm writing here about the one of those that initially aired in 1993 on the BBC and was directed by Trevor Nunn.
The BBC version is based on the 1986 Glyndebourne Festival stage production, which was remounted at Covent Garden in 1992. The Covent Garden cast was reassembled at Shepperton Studios, where the filming was done. I think that is to our advantage as DVD viewers because we get enhanced realism and more details than could have been achieved by simply shooting a performance at the opera house.
The story is set at a place called Catfish Row, an impoverished African-American community located in or near Charleston, South Carolina. The opera has four key characters. One is the lonely, crippled beggar Porgy (bass-baritone Willard White). Two of the others are the stevedore Crown (Gregg Baker, a baritone of imposing physical stature) and his troubled lover Bess (soprano Cynthia Haymon). The fourth is the slimy dope-peddler Sportin' Life (tenor Damon Evans). I would say that all four of the singers I've named are right for their roles in the film because of their voices, looks, and acting ability.
The plot is set in motion when the hot-tempered Crown kills a man in a fight that erupts during a game of craps. To escape prosecution, Crown leaves Catfish Row, and his girlfriend Bess moves in with the goodhearted Porgy, which makes the crippled beggar very happy. But Porgy fears Crown will come back to reclaim Bess, and she seems unable to resist the strong and powerfully built stevedore. The situation is further complicated by the presence in Catfish Row of Sportin' Life, a conscienceless dope-peddler who desires Bess and is clever at using trickery and happy dust (cocaine) to get his way.
The charm of "Porgy & Bess" for me is in the excellent performances of the music and lyrics in the context of the story. When Porgy gets happy because Bess is living with him, he celebrates his life of poverty by singing the cheerful "Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin'." And I enjoy the love-duet "Bess, you is my woman now," sung by the title characters. Sportin' Life gets an entertaining comic number about the virtues of skepticism in "It ain't necessarily so." And Porgy captures the notion of resolve as he sets off on a quixotic quest to track down his beloved Bess in the finale "Oh Lawd, I'm on my way." The most famous number is "Summertime," a lullaby sung by the relatively minor character Clara to her baby near the opera's beginning.
"Porgy & Bess" is performed in English, and the DVD provides English, French, Italian, and German subtitles. The orchestra is the London Philharmonic, and the music is conducted by Simon Rattle. The "Porgy & Bess" DVD has no bonus materials except for a scene-by-scene synopsis in text form in four languages: English, French, Italian, and German.
DVD Release Date: July 3, 2001
Feature Run Time: 3 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Full-Screen (1.33:1), Color
English Dolby Digital Stereo
Subtitles: English, French, Italian, German
Synopsis in English, French, Italian, German