The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of the The Gershwins’® Porgy and BessSM last night at Symphony Hall, promoted as a highlight of the BSO’s 2012-13 season, was anything but. With a stiff Bramwell Tovey conducting an amplified cast including (inadvertently) the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, it was quite a long evening, with an 11 o’clock finish. Disappointingly, BSO’s presentation was opposite of what I was expecting to hear — the story and its music being some of the most moving I have known since I was a kid, one of my favorites in the whole world. Yes, I was truly looking forward to the concert. But, simply put, neither the performance nor the concept really worked.
The opera in three acts by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin takes place in Catfish Row, a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina. From early on in this restored 1935 Broadway production version, I felt something terribly missing when Porgy came on stage wearing a tuxedo and showing no signs of a limp. With males in tuxedos and females in formal gowns, yet with some attempts at staging, exits, and entrances, fewer and fewer connections to the story I know and love were made. The sparse choreography for this concert performance could not pull off the emotion Gershwin had in mind. He said about the Heywards’ work: “I felt when I read Porgy in novel form that it had 100 percent dramatic intensity in addition to humor.”
This performance certainly was a very, very strange experience. I closed my eyes to see if that would help. When I opened them, I looked to my right, but the singer was on my left; his voice coming out the speaker to my right is what I heard! When I opened my eyes again I could see why — the sound was issuing from two large loudspeaker arrays on either side of the proscenium arch, and there was no center array. I heard only the speaker to my right.
Symphony Hall’s amplification wreaked havoc with storytelling and music-making. Whenever a certain decibel or critical mass was reached, a harsh wall of sound resulted. The Hall’s sound system may have worked pretty well with the Soweto Gospel Choir I heard last February, but it clearly did not work for Porgy and Bess. The Press Office of the BSO stated, in a follow-up call, “All singers and actors in Porgy and Bess were amplified to various extents. The idea was just enough to be heard over the orchestra and chorus and add a little clarity during the performance.” All I can say is, there must have been bleed-through to affect the projection of the choir.
There were other pronounced mismatches. Gershwin’s overture in this performance by the BSO had some luster but missed both its inner soul and outer being. The stately brass fanfares soon overpowered the urban bustle of the strings. When Conductor Tovey left the podium and sat down at the deliberately out-of-tune upright, he looked and sounded tight, handling Gershwin’s vigorous American rhythms of that syncopated honky-tonk solo.
And I am one of those heathens — I need, absolutely need and absolutely want to hear, the words of songs. Pop singers, blues singers, folk singers, and jazz singers do pretty well at it. Why do pure vowels and athletic vocal cords so often take over in operatic singing, this, at the cost of good diction? Far too many of the words of Ira and the Heywards were indecipherable. This should never happen, especially in America!
Bass-baritone Alfred Walker and soprano Laquita Mitchell sang the title roles, his Porgy often engaged, her Bess split into personalities. Soprano Angel Blue pitched Clara’s “Summertime” lullaby in a siren-ish way that missed that sunny innocence of mother singing to child. Tenor Jermain Smith also changed his mind a few times in his role as Sportin’ Life, but he did succeed at times in brightening the vocal spectrum. Soprano Marquita Lister sang Serena’s “My Mans Gone Now” too tragically, her lower range appealed while the higher notes gave way to too much power and vibrato.
Baritone Greg Baker’s Crown puzzled, as did his diction. Also in the cast were soprano Alison Buchanan as Lily and Strawberry woman; tenor Chauncey Packer as Peter, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swan as Annie, contralto Gwendolyn Brown as Maria, tenor Calvin Lee as Mingo, Nelson, and Crabman; baritone Patrick Blackwell as Jim and Undertaker, baritone John Fulton as Robbins, baritone Robert Honeysucker as Frazier, and baritone Leon Williams as Jake.
The huge Tanglewood Festival Chorus, headed by John Oliver, displayed fabulous sound and diction in the softer passages of “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down.” These refreshing transparencies were unfortunately brief. Once the chorus hit that critical mass of sound those blankety-blank amplifiers morphed the singing into a harsh tangle.
The applause factor was certainly odd; most of the audience just did not know what to do. It seemed from watching Tovey that he wanted to keep on going — perhaps because he was warned that the audience would want to leave before the clock struck twelve.