I don’t really do opera – at least not of the “high” variety. I can occasionally be found humming away to a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan, but I know among aficionados that doesn’t really count. I also can be quite partial to bits and pieces of the general repertoire but don’t really get the whole staged shows as an overall concept. One big exception has always been Porgy and Bess and that’s largely due to appreciating Gershwin. As I’d yet to review anything in the opera area this seemed as good a way as any to make good that particular deficiency.
Rather than benighted aristocrats or tales from long ago, Porgy and Bess concentrates on an underprivileged contemporary (when written) community in Carolina who scratch a meagre existence out of fishing and cotton. The lame Porgy takes Bess under his wing when her boyfriend Crown has to go on the run after murdering someone in an argument started at a craps game. Soon love blossoms but Crown returns from exile and there is retribution in the air. And Bess is addicted to “happy dust” (cocaine) succumbing to its lure and running away to New York with the drug dealer Sportin’ Life; Porgy decides to follow her finishing the show on a note of optimism which counters the various tragedies that occur throughout.
This production is mounted by San Francisco Opera and features some very impressive choral work from an absolutely huge ensemble. There’s a real feeling of a whole community gathering onstage and all generations are represented as they come together at a picnic, a funeral and huddling together for shelter from a hurricane. The soloists too give totally committed performances which bring the characters to life. Porgy is played by Eric Owens with a determination to overcome obstacles but no sense that he feels sorry for his lot in life. Laquita Mitchell as Bess matches Owens’ singing prowess although I wasn’t totally convinced by her characterisation. Chauncey Packer brings a sleazy sense of style to the role of Sportin’ Life and with his exaggerated and stylised movements captures attention whenever he is on stage. Lester Lynch’s Crown comes over as a huge bull of a man with a determinedly nasty streak as he roars his way to alpha male status.
The production setting is in a huge warehouse suggesting the mechanistic existences of the community and lighting is used very effectively to create the scenes outside. Particularly memorable is the sequence in which Jake (one of the fishermen) and his wife Clara battle the elements out at sea. Not that Frank Zamacona’s direction is faultless. The baby is all too obviously a doll (it possibly worked on stage at a distance but in camera close up not so much). Also, the fight scenes are woefully inadequate, even risible. Both of these aspects lend the production a somewhat amateurish feel which, fortunately, is largely outweighed by most aspects.
Even if, like me, you don’t particularly care for opera you can definitely embrace this by thinking of it in the tradition of musical theatre. Because, of course, many of the individual songs within the opera have become famous outside of their original context and it struck me just how many of these are not delivered by the named headliners but by some of the secondary characters. The opening number, Summertime, has become a standard and is delivered brilliantly by Angel Blue’s Clara. It is akin to Oh What A Beautiful Morning in Oklahoma in setting the mood and tone of the piece. And fancy using one of the greatest songs ever at the top of the show? Gershwin and his collaborators (his brother Ira and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) boldly announce their arrival with what was (at the time) a thrillingly different and bold leap forward for drama set to music and in this production it teems with life and passion. Am I ready now for Don Giovanni? Not quite.
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