in: Reviews

July 29, 2017

Go! To Glimmerglass

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Photo: Carrington Spires

One really should make an effort to see and hear the Glimmerglass Opera production of The Gershwins© Porgy and Bess. Despite rumors to the contrary, a few seats are still available to some of the remaining performances, especially the added-on one on August 15th [ticket information here]. Though this reviewer ruefully was not able to attend the other three operas in this season’s repertoire, Donizetti’s The Siege of Corinth, Handel’s Xerxes, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, seeing just this Porgy and Bess was worth the trip. Its complex score is so beautifully constructed, containing recurring themes, foreboding like Puccini, and colorful instrumentation. The exhilaration of the opening overture with xylophone and triangle, trombones adding sparkle; the break to the soft and swaying, lazy rhythm of “Summertime”; the pungency of Sportin’ Life’s arias, the poignancy of the duets between Porgy and Bess, the throbbing minor-key dirge for “My Man’s Gone Now,” were superbly conducted by John DeMain. He said he is “cruising to 400 performances, I am very proud of this one. It is 95% of what audiences heard at the first in 1935 …. Gershwin wrote every single note and orchestrated the entire score.” [see Steven Ledbetter’s extended BMInt analysis of the work’s history here]. In other words, although portions were cut (it originally ran well over three hours) to shave the long running time, there are no embellishments, no re-orchestration. It is a difficult opera, DeMain explains, “very complex.” Its style is a hybrid of leitmotif and numbers (arias, duets, trios), a particularly American development for which he credits Gershwin along with Leonard Bernstein, Carlisle Floyd.

The Alice Busch Opera Theater, at 914 seats, is cleverly designed so that no one is far from the stage. DeMain agrees. “It makes the emotionality so much more powerful.” Francesca Zambello, Artistic and General Director of Glimmerglass Opera, established the tone: “To me, Catfish Row is both a home and a prison.” Set designer Peter Davison created a provocative setting evoking that interpretation. The backdrop is a two-story façade of run-down decaying apartments, tiny and window-less, the top row opening onto a shallow balcony that provides stations for the chorus. The effect suggests two tiers of cells. The lighting, especially the side-lighting, dramatically delineated the chorus on the second tier of “houses.” This writer’s only quibble was with the set for the picnic on Kittiwah Island. It evoked the underside of a bridge, say in New York, as something more of a foreshadowing of Porgy’s poignant, quixotic destination as the opera ends. Crown’s demand to Bess that she go and hide in “the shrubbery” seemed a bit hard to swallow. But overall, it should be noted, that the production level was grander and more detailed by a couple of orders of magnitude than what we get to see locally.

photo: Karli Cadel

Gershwin scored his opera for a large cast. Meroë Khalia Adeeb, a member of the Young Artists’ Program, did a good job with the plum role of Clara. Serena’s mournful jazz, “My Man’s Gone Now,” sung by Simone Z. Paulwell, another Young Artist, was very well received by the capacity audience. Porgy is played by Musa Ngqungwana, who has sung a number of dramatic roles in operas from Mozart to Jake Heggie. His warm voice and convincing movement as a cripple strongly contributed to the impact of his interpretation. Bess is Talise Trevigne, also a veteran of a repertoire of Mozart, Strauss, and modern composers. Her duets with Ngqungwana were beautifully sung, and she held onto her final notes with a vengeance. Frederick Ballantine, an alumnus of the Young Artist’ Program who has gone on to an impressive career, made a fine Sportin’ Life. Suffice it to say, all soloists, seasoned in many genres throughout the United States, England, and Canada, sang admirably, as did the chorus.

Click HERE for more stunning images.

Bettina A. Norton, Boston Musical Intelligencer’s Editor Emerita, is a retired museum professional She is finishing a book on 18th-century portraitist Benjamin Blyth, of Salem.

 

 

5 Comments

  1. This was probably a Lifetime “Porgy and Bess” that one will think back to for years as probably the best one you see in your life. I saw it last Monday, then “Oklahoma!” on Tuesday, excellently done, Ms. Norton’s loss in missing it. I was told by the woman sitting next to me who had seen Broadway’s Oklahoma! in the ’40’s that this was very close to that except for the choreography–yes it was good, but de Mille’s choreography to “Rodeo” was the style that Agnes de Mille had used for Oklahoma! on Broadway. The special treats for musicals at Glimmerglass is the full orchestra akin to the 1940’s and that the performers are NOT miked and there is no amplification. Yes, there were a few “weak spots” to the stage as singers moved about and the Young Artists can occasionally be weak–they’re young–but this was a great Oklahoma!
    As for the other two, Donizetti’s “Siege of Calais” is to be done here by Odyssey Opera in October so go to it here. It’s not the usual Donizetti; the Chorus is more prominent and it has moving moments and in the end is a neat story. Having it set in modern times–one thought of the sieges in Syria or Lebanon–worked because for once it was not allowed to get in the way of the story; too often modern settings seem only to be attempts to score political points, a practice sometimes denounced as “Euro-trash” because it is all too common there. Handel’s “Xerxes” was entertaining and well done; but in the interest of reducing it to 2.5 hours running time they may have pruned too much which left one in the early stages wondering what were characters’ motives like something vital had been omitted. Now maybe I was opera’d out by Saturday night–the second opera of the day and the fifth that week (Bard College’s Dvorak’s Dmitrij on 8/6), but of the four productions as a work I would put Xerxes as the weakest but from the program notes (excellent this year) this may have been due to Handel himself’s writing for changing tastes. I’ll put Xerxes down as one to see again by someone else.
    But do see if you can see “Oklahoma!”; it’s worth it–same with Siege either there or here. I may miss it here–my Dad’s extended 100th birthday party-event may interfere.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — August 14, 2017 at 4:54 pm

  2. To add as a separate matter, there is a touchy subject in theater these days, and having just read minutes ago about the closing the Broadway show “The Great Comet” due to Political Correctness (a close cousin of Euro-trashing) I need to bring this up. The Porgy and Bess leads and soloists were all People of Color but a few of the chorus members looked like they may actually have been White. This got me thinking of the social strata depicted in Porgy and that how nowadays the poorer level of White people is a lot like the poorer level of Black people; you especially see that in the Mohawk Valley not far from Glimmerglass. The chorus may have been cast with that idea in mind, and the effect may even explain why some Whites and Blacks may have strayed from the Democrats last year. This brings up the question of whether Porgy has been done with any non-Blacks in the leads akin to the cross-racial casting which is deliberately done with the musical “Hairspray” when done by high school students. It is now acceptable to have non-White people play Whites and some great theater has resulted from it; but there were problems a few years ago when the star of the London production of “Miss Saigon” was (almost?) brought to Broadway–but it was noted she was a White Britisher portraying an Oriental and that was Politically Incorrect. So, does anyone know of a Porgy done with some non-Black people?

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — August 14, 2017 at 5:25 pm

  3. The Gershwin estate, at the express instruction of the Gershwins themselves, requires that any staged production of “Porgy and Bess” use an all-black cast, including the chorus. For concert performances, that rule is relaxed, and I was immensely grateful as a white member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, to have been able to sing in this opera at Tanglewood and in Symphony Hall. The arguments for an all-black cast include providing opportunities, and an entrée into the opera world, to black singers. This opera can also be something of a trap for black singers, who want to sing a broad range of operatic roles but end up pigeonholed in “Porgy and Bess.”

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — August 15, 2017 at 4:07 pm

  4. Amen to Stephen Owades’s last comment. My wonderful grand-niece, Afton Battle, agrees. She won a Met Regional competition and two years back, was on a 15-week tour of Europe with P&G. She was Serena, and her cover was Simone Z. Paulwell, who sang the role in the Glimmerglass production. But she has felt stymied getting other roles. Peccato!

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — August 17, 2017 at 7:18 am

  5. Regarding the reference to Miss Saigon in a previous comment:

    It is misleading, the problematic casting was not the female lead, but the male. The 1991 Broadway production did have controversy about the casting of the leading male rôle, Brit Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer. Lea Salonga, a Filipino actress created the title rôle in the West End opposite him. Both did recreate their rôles in the Broadway production, and both won Tony awards for Best Leading Actors in a Musical. The current Broadway revival of Miss Saigon did cast an Asian actor as The Engineer.

    Comment by Dennis Milford — August 24, 2017 at 1:15 am

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