It took a long time for George Gershwin's only opera to maunder its way from gimmicky sideshow to bona-fide classic. Until 1976, when Houston Grand Opera mounted a production of the complete score, moved it to Broadway, and released a recording, the work was largely considered a songbook for jazz musicians or a compendium of dated stereotypes. On this recording, Simon Rattle needs no convincing. Under his direction, the syncopations crackle, the chorus pulses with ecstatic energy and the orchestration has a vividness that leaves you wondering how it could ever have been missed.
Gershwin tempered his instinct for a catchy tune with an anthropological sojourn among the Gullah of Folly Island, South Carolina, with the result that the work's lovers and haters have been fretting over questions of authenticity ever since. But to Rattle it's simply an opera, a glorious hybrid of black and European, Catfish Row and Tin Pan Alley, tragedy and entertainment. Willard White captures Porgy's irrepressible nobility, and he's surrounded by an impeccable trio of black sopranos: Cynthia Haymon as Bess, Marietta Simpson, and Harolyn Blackwell (who sings a gossamer "Summertime").