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.
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.