Opera Review | Technical and production misfires mar ‘Porgy and Bess’
Performances by lead singers save an otherwise static opera
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 00:10
In honor of the 114th birthday of American composer George Gershwin, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra to perform “Porgy and Bess,” the classic “American folk opera” written in African American vernacular that tells the story of the residents of “Catfish Row,” a fictitious town in Charleston, South Carolina.
The performance attempted to tread the line between musical theater and opera, a line that “Porgy and Bess” undoubtedly stands on. The execution, however, was musically static and theatrically dull. It would have been nice to see more attention to the music and less of a focus on the theatrical aspect. By the end of the second act, it appeared that the three−hour performance was already becoming too long.
Under the baton of English conductor Bramwell Tovey, Alfred Walker (Porgy) and Laquita Mitchell (Bess) began the piece with an energetic and highly syncopated theme that quickly went downhill. The piece culminated with the conductor Tovey taking to an upright piano whose tone was far too dampened for the honky−tonk solo he played on it. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus made whimsical gestures as the scene unfolded, introducing a lighthearted tone to the performance.
As the scene opened, Clara, played by Angel Blue, sang the hypnotizing lullaby “Summertime” to her baby. The lullaby came back in full force with the aid of the chorus but, rather than give it a fuller texture, the words and sonorities grew harsh and unintelligible. Indeed, the acoustics of Boston Symphony Hall did not lend themself well to the artificial amplification of the performers, especially when multiple performers sang at once.
The mixture of traditional African American music and opera yielded a unique mix of operatic lyricism, colloquial pronunciation, gospel, ragtime and blues. In terms of diversity in popular repertoire, there is no other piece quite like “Porgy and Bess.” The Tanglewood Festival Chorus lent itself well to the gospel−esque call−and−response themes that pervaded the piece. In complement with this, there were plenty of opportunities for the residents of “Catfish Row” to sing in full−on reverend style, adding to the colloquial charm of the piece.
Continuing in the show’s lighthearted fashion, there was a fair number of acrobatics throughout the performance — from character Sportin’ Life doing splits, to Maria outwardly fixing her bust, to a strawberry vendor appearing behind the audience.
One outstanding moment in an otherwise drawn−out performance was the duet between Porgy and Bess. Mitchell’s voice is most aptly suited for arias where her soft but powerful tone is allowed to flow naturally. Both Walker and Mitchell sang with perfect volume, neither one masking the other. Even as she reached the highest registers, her melodies never came out screechy; instead, she maintained a lustrous tone and balance.
The story of “Porgy and Bess” in and of itself is dark and humorous. It makes light of murder and wholly characterizes life in “Catfish Row” as ephemeral. It is not meant to be a gripping love story nor is it meant to be taken too seriously — rather, one should laugh and enjoy. Still, the haphazard attempt at a hybrid musical theater−opera did not do Gershwin justice. Unfortunately, this performance of “Porgy and Bess” was not crisp and its words were often indiscernible. The use of artificial amplification might have seemed like a fair compromise, especially when performers often were not able to directly sing towards the audience, but for an orchestra, chorus and cast of this size, the result was too muddy. The music should have taken precedence over superficial theatrical entertainment.