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Friday, July 21, 2017

Rise Up Singing

WHEN MUSIC DIRECTOR John DeMain conducted “Porgy and Bess” for Houston Grand Opera in 1976, he presented it in a form as close to its operatic original as could be managed, and in doing so helped right a terrible injustice that had been done to the piece. It was the first major production in a quarter-century, and even before then, poor “Porgy” had been tampered with severely.

Justin Austin and Musa Ngqungwana
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Houston production reminded us that George Gershwin had produced a masterpiece, as deserving of a seat in opera’s pantheon as are his musicals entitled to their esteem in theatrical history. And, despite what Diane Paulus would have us believe with her recent Broadway production, the work is an opera, and was written on opera’s grand canvas with the emotional artillery of aria and recitative.

This is brilliantly proven by the Glimmerglass Festival production – the orchestra conducted, appropriately, masterfully, by DeMain – as a top-notch cast brings Catfish Row to life with a sense of honesty and urgency that reminds us of theater’s power to make the artificial seem all too real.

Musa Mgqungwana brings ebullient charisma to the character of Porgy, lighting up the stage from his initial entrance, long after Act One is underway, and his voice is another marvel, a place where love and pain convincingly mix. In last summer’s “Thieving Magpie,” he sang a much less sympathetic role, so it’s a pleasure to be able to like his character this time around. And never more so than in his joyous Act Two number, “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin.’”

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
He’s matched by Talise Trevigne as Bess, who skillfully humanizes a difficult role. Bess is flawed, masking her insecurities with live-for-the-moment bravado, making her easy prey for opportunistic males. Opera tends to simplify characterization, which we accept across most of its spectrum; because of the racial complexion of this piece, it’s been damned through the decades as ennobling bad stereotypes. We see Trevigne’s Bess lift herself from the easy but dangerous life as girlfriend of the temperamental Crown (Norman Garrett) to a place where she can allow herself to care for someone. That she can’t fully commit to it sparks her downfall, and Trevigne convinces us both with her acting and with a voice that whispers or soars as needed. Her duets with Porgy – “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” – are among the many highlights of this production.

The role of Sportin’ Life is a showstopper, and Frederick Ballentine (last season’s Reverend Parris) rarely stands still whenever he shimmers onto the stage, most memorably to sing “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Other standout performances include Garrett’s menacing Crown and Judith Skinner as the Maria, the community’s conscience.

Although the show’s songs have taken on a life independent of the score – many have become nightclub standards, and Jascha Heifetz arranged several of the songs for violin and piano before the rest of the classical-music world acknowledged them – they’re worked into the fabric of the opera as motifs (Gershwin was a fan of “Meistersinger”) even as the opera itself celebrates a variety of musical styles (Gershwin also was a fan of “Wozzeck.”)

Talise Trevigne and Frederick Ballentine
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Director Francesca Zambello puts her stamp on the production right from the start, giving the large cast occupying the stage at rise an engaging spectrum of personalities and interactions. Even before Meroë Khalia Adeeb begins the celebrated opening number, we have a feeling for this busy neighborhood. And then “Summertime” sounds and we’re swept into an ironic reverie, a world of dreams that extends to the craps game going on nearby, a game with its own song, into which “Summertime” is swept as counterpoint. It’s virtuoso writing, and it’s given performances to match.

Zambello’s work is so good that it’s practically transparent; she’s aided to that end by choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, whose dance numbers seem to erupt out of the natural movement of these people.

Barn-red corrugated tin defines Peter J. Davison’s set, which gives us a tenement with a feeling of jail-cell claustrophobia. It’s at its most effective during Act Two’s hurricane, as the crashes of falling panels augment the very convincing thunder and lightning effects.

And then there’s the orchestra. Like the best opera-house ensembles, they can play anything, and they embrace Gershwin’s jazzy-classical score with the familiarity of old friends – with an old master of the idiom at the helm. DeMain’s dedication to this piece is well evident.

Cries of racism have dogged “Porgy” throughout its existence, ebbing or intensifying according to the imperatives of the decade, which makes it worth remembering that its debut, in 1935, occurred when the minstrel show was still fresh in many minds. This is an anti-minstrel show, a celebration of American music that doesn’t compromise itself, and it needs productions like this one to remind us where our musical – and theatrical, and operatic – identity lies. 

Porgy and Bess
Music by George Gershwin
Libretto by DuBose Heyward
Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Based on the play “Porgy” by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward
Conducted by John DeMain
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Glimmerglass Festival, July 18

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