Sunday, June 14, 2009

Porgy and Bess at SFO

San Francisco Opera
Porgy and Bess
George Gershwin
Fri Jun 12 2009 8 pm

Bess: Laquita Mitchell
Porgy: Eric Owens
Sportin' Life: Chauncey Packer
Crown: Lester Lynch
Clara: Angel Blue
Serena: Karen Slack
Maria: Alteouise deVaughn
Jake: Eric Greene
Mingo: Michael Bragg
Annie: Malesha Jessie
Strawberry Woman: Samantha McElhaney
Lily: Amber Mercomes
Robbins: Michael Austin
Crab Man: Ashley Faatoalia
Peter: Calvin Lee
Nelson: Frederick Matthews
Jim: Earl Hazell
Frazier: Kenneth Overton
Undertaker: Darren K. Stokes
Detective: Richard Farrell
Policeman: Louis Landman
Coroner: John Minágro
Ensemble: Porgy and Bess Ensemble

Conductor: John DeMain
Production/Director: Francesca Zambello

Happily, this was one of those occasions where all the elements came together to provide a consistently enjoyable evening. I knew it was going to go well as soon as I heard the chorus's gentle vocalizing come in under Angel Blue's floating Summertime, which opens the opera. The chorus was a major star of the show, equal to soloists. I was impressed by their dynamic control & a wonderful upward slide they did together during the funeral scene. The chorus also acted, danced & generally looked like they were having a lot of fun on stage.

Here was a cast that whole-heartedly believed in the material. Eric Owens, sweating profusely, sang & acted like he owned the role of Porgy. His sound was dark, tough yet fluid. He hobbled around on a crutch & did several realistic falls. Laquita Mitchell as Bess was consistently robust, almost virile, in both her voice & her acting. Karen Slack's wailing My man is gone & fervid Doctor Jesus were arresting. Chauncey Packer exuded a shameless joy as Sportin' Life, plus he had great dance moves.

Zambello's production is busy, with much elaborate business for the chorus, portraying Catfish Row as a lively, supportive community. The setting is a rusting industrial landscape. Expressionistic lighting effects accompany changes in mood. I could not see that anything was gained by shifting the time to the 1950's. I found the staging of the hurricane a little embarrassing, though: the chorus gathered under a flimsy scaffolding, & we could see people on stage shaking it to represent the force of the gale.

There was only intermission, making for a long 1st half that lasted one hour & forty minutes. During the dramatic confrontation between Bess & Crown on Kittiwah Island, which closed this 1st half, the woman next to me worriedly leaned over & asked, "Is there an intermission?"


Gavin Plumley said...

It is one of the regrets of my life that I never caught Trevor Nunn's PORGY AND BESS when it came to Covent Garden in 1992. Sadly, when he reincarnated the production as a 'Musical' a few years ago it was not good. Pilfering the score of some hit tunes, but robbing it of its operatic majesty, it showed that PORGY is most definitely an opera. Must try and catch another production soon...

Axel Feldheim said...

I try not to live with regrets, so I do hope you get a chance to see it some day. I feel fortunate that our current production makes a strong case for the opera.

I am noticing that a lot of people are mentioning this issue of whether or not Porgy & Bess is an opera, even though, as you say, it's quite clearly so. All the action is carried along through the music, & it even uses traditional operatic devices like leitmotifs & scene painting with the orchestra.

The thing I find lacking in the work itself is a central dramatic pull. Gershwin spends a lot of time depicting the communal life of Catfish Row, but the relationship between Porgy & Bess seems to get lost a lot of the time. The final scene is quite affecting, though.

I was mainly looking forward to just hearing something American in the opera house. Unfortunately, Porgy & Bess seems to be the only work of its kind in the repertoire, & I feel like it represents an American operatic idiom that could have been but never developed.