Gershwin, Porgy and Bess

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By James L. Zychowicz

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, John DeMain (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago 29.11.2008 (JLZ)


Director – Francesca Zambello
Set Design – Peter J. Davison
Costumes – Paul Tazewell
Lighting – Mark McCullough
Choreography and Association Stage Director – Denni Sayers


Porgy – Gordon Hawkins
Bess – Morenike Radayoni
Crown – Lester Lynch
Clara – Laquita Mitchell
Sporting Life – Jermaine Smith
Jake – Eric Greene
Serena – Jonita Lattimore
Robbins – Barron Coleman
Maria – Maretta Simpson

After a number of years, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is back on the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production rented from Washington National Opera (Washington, D.C.) and designed by Francesca Zambello. This conception sets the work forward in time from being contemporaneous with its creation in the mid-1930s onward to the 1950s, as apparent from the costumes and, to a degree, from the kinds of interactions depicted between the black community and the white police and legal figures. The familiar story of the sometime jaded cripple Porgy falling in love with Bess, a woman of questionable virtue, who was formerly with Crown. Going into hiding after killing Seren’s husband, Crown fails to take Bess along, and she finds refuge with Porgy. While Porgy and Bess grow to love each other, Crown still feels as if Bess is his property, and the tension mounts until Porgy murders him. Yet when Porgy is taken away for questioning, Bess takes off for New York with Sporting Life, a low-life who will, no doubt lead her into more problems. The end of the work finds Porgy taking off to find Bess, and even in this fine production, his prospects of success seem poor, despite’s Porgy’s resilience.

Peter J. Davison’s vivid design works well in and serves the score nicely by allowing for appropriate spaces in which the can occur: this definitely helps to enhance those aspects of the work which are closer to musical theater than conventional opera. Without splitting hairs over distinctions between opera and musicals, the dramatic elements of Porgy and Bess can sometimes isolate the music from the action, and this is implicit in the division of the work into two parts, the first consisting of the overture, first act, and the first two scenes of the second act; the second comprising the last two scenes of Act II and the entire third act. This structure reinforces the tragic rape of Bess on Kittiwah Island and makes the production resemble more a traditional Broadway music, which usual divides into two acts.

As to the production itself, it is a vivid visualization on stage of Catfish Row as a two-story tenement, with doors and stairs accessible for various entrances and exits. It helps to define the community group whose spiritual leader is Maria, performed here by the Lyric veteran Marietta Simpson. (Simpson was part of the memorable production of Blitzstein’s Regina several years ago.) In Porgy and Bess Simpson demonstrated her always fine singing once again, but the drama also allowed audiences to appreciate her acting ability. A sympathetic character, he was most animated during the scene in which she confronts Sporting Life. Likewise, Jonita Lattimore, a voice familiar to Chicago audiences, not only for her work at Lyric, but also at other venues She brought the character of Serena to life convincingly, with her lament “My Man’s Gone Now” at the end of the first act which was particularly moving. Her vocal inflection brought out the emotional pitch of the number, which remains in this production more convincing than the somewhat obligatory spiritual-inspired chorus “Leavin’ for the Promised Land” which ends the act. “Oh, Doctor Jesus” at the end of the second act was, in Lattimore’s hands, memorable.

Of the principals, Gordon Hawkins is a seasoned Porgy, who has performed the role in various places, including the Bregenz Festival (under the direction of Götz Friedrich) and also in the premiere of Zambello’s staging at Washington National Opera. He knows the role well, and it was welcome to hear his nuanced “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” His duet with Bess, here sung by Morenike Fadayomi, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” was intimate and resonant. In fact, both performers contributed a welcome freshness this familiar number, with their lines intersecting nicely as they celebrated the newfound love. As Porgy, Hawkins navigated the stage well, since the production substitutes a crutch for the cart scripted for the character, and this modification gave him some extra mobility. This detail necessitated adjusting the text, but also added a prop to the staging, which contributed to the crucial scene in which Porgy battles Crown to the death. (While destroyed in the fight, it is remarkable that a replacement crutch appears in the next scene.)

Fadayomi is an equally experienced Bess, who also worked with Hawkins at Washington National Opera. A fine actress on stage, she allowed the sometimes brazen Bess to be a bit understated; her body language and eye contract showed the audience the sometimes difficult relationship she has with the community at Catfish Row. Her voice was sometimes lost in the enthusiasm of this production, but her reprise of Clara’s “Summertime” demonstrated her singing beauitfully. In this production, Bess the lapsed sinner seems doomed to repeat her mistakes, a touch that was convincing enough for some audience members to voice their disappointment as they were leaving the theater.

As Crown, the villain of the work. Lester Lynch made his character believable, and his resonant bass voice ranged through the hall. Audience members who attend later performances this season will find Lynch in the title role of Porgy, and they should enjoy his performance in a completely different. His menacing portrayal of Crown gave the necessary angry edge to the character, an element underscored by the physicality Lynch brings to the part. Likewise, Jermaine Smith was a three-dimensional Sporting Life, whose trouble-loving bent always drew in those near him. The penultimate number in the first half of this production “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” involved some fine interaction between Smith and the chorus. By bending of pitches and rhythms, he added an extra dimension to the sometimes familiar music. In the end, his persona as a drug dealer is strong enough to win Bess away from Catfish Row, even though his more memorable music was in the first part of the show. Other roles were nicely cast, with Laquita Mitchell singing of Clara — her finely pitched “Summertime” opening the first act. Depicting her husband Jake, Erice Greene demonstrated a polished, expressive voice that would be welcome in other roles.

For the chorus, some of the numbers worked well, with the chordal harmony moving with studied precision. In the contrapuntal passages however, the textures became, ambiguous at times, with words and phrases sometimes blurring until the texture resolved in a single word or syllable. The production was well served with the surcaps projected above the stage, so that the audience could follow the text throughout the performance. The chorus did well in the extended opening scene, in which Gershwin creates the atmosphere of Catfish Row. A kind of reflection of Puccini’s La bohème, their number helps to introduce the characters and staging, and the close attention of the audience was a tribute to Zambello’s success in this area. The presentation of the work in two parts, puts across a different aesthetic than when Porgy and Bess is present in three acts. Then, the second act ends with the plight of Porgy in question while in the present production, the emphasis shifts more strongly to Bess. This is not precisely in the score, but modern productions sometimes involve such shifts in dramatic structure.

At some point however questions do arise, perhaps as a result of the updating that is part of the production. Does Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess perpetuate stereotypes in paying undue attention to the references to cocaine and other drugs, sexual promiscuity, and dialect? At another level, is it the fault of the production if the portrayal of Bess seems so wayward that Porgy would be foolish even to think of following her to New York? Or is it best to consider Porgy and Bess as the product of its times, with affinities to some of the naturalistic dramas popular at the time? Such considerations point to understandings of the work as a whole, which differs from the appreciation of some of its popular numbers. Taken out of context, pieces like “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and others convey different meanings when heard apart from the entire score.Perhaps it is a measure of the success of this production that it raises questions that are important for understanding the place of these well-known piece of musical theater within American culture. With Zambello’s new production and Lyric’s fine presentation of it, audiences have an excellent opportunity to answer the questions for themselves.

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Puccini, La Bohème

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By Harvey Steiman

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor, Nicola Luisotti. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 19.11.2008 (HS)

Mimì: Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala (tenor)
Marcello: Brian Mulligan (baritone)
Musetta: Norah Amsellem (soprano)
Colline: Oren Gradus (bass)
Schaunard: Brian Leerhuber (baritone)
Benoit, Alcindoro: Dale Travis (bass)
Parpignol: Colby Roberts (tenor)

Director: Harry Silverstein
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Walter Mahoney
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler

Something extraordinary is happening at San Francisco Opera. Not only has David Gockley raised the company’s fall offerings to a higher level of consistency than anything seen here in years, but conductor Nicola Luisotti arrived this week to deliver an electrifying preview of his upcoming tenure as music director. He replaces Donald Runnicles, who concludes his 16-year tenure in June 2009.

Luisotti grew up in Lucca, Puccini’s home town, so it should surprise no one that he could lead such a scintillating performance of the composer’s much loved but often under-represented opera, La Bohéme. Led by a couple of eastern Europeans—Romanian soprano Angela Gheorgiu as Mimì and Polish tenor Pyotr Beczala as Rodolfo—the cast was strong right down the line, not a weak link in the bunch. But it was the clarity, responsiveness and sure-handedness of the orchestra that riveted attention from the very first notes.

It’s hard to imagine a better realization of what Puccini wrote. Seemingly in every phrase, Luisotti drew out nuances one seldom hears. Small details, such as the sighing flicker of the flames as Rodolfo burns his play to warm the frigid garret, emerged almost organically, becoming part of the musical structure. And later, telling gestures like the wisps of music alluding to earlier scenes flitted through with just enough emphasis to call one’s attention to them without losing the flow. In the final scene, the nostalgic references to Mimì and Rodolfo’s Act I love duet could not have tugged at the heart more profoundly.

But the magic happened most tellingly in the final pages of Act III. In the quartet, the conductor’s challenge is to keep the sweetness flowing in Mimì and Rodolfo’s music of parting, then reconciliation, even when Musetta and Marcello interrupt with their bickering. Not only could we feel the tender strands through it all, but Luisotti pulled off something of a miracle by making the music seem to hover weightlessly in the final measure, right up to the final crash in the orchestra at the curtain.

That kind of conducting bodes well for San Francisco Opera’s future. Musical matters have done just fine in recent years under Runnicles, whose strength lies in German and English opera. Though Runnicles has whipped up some highly emotional performances in Italian opera, too, we haven’t heard this kind of vivid, superbly detailed work in Puccini or Verdi in this house for years. Maybe ever.

This may help assuage inevitable financial cutbacks due to the current economic downturn. In pre-curtain remarks, Gockley told the audience that the company must scale back some of its ambitious plans for next year and possibly beyond, but he promised no compromise in casting or musical elements.

If some productions must take the stage a few more times, one could do worse than Michael Yeargan’s delicious sets for Bohème. The garret, appropriately cramped into a box centered in the large stage, features a bed built on a pile of books and windows so sooty you can’t see out of them. Flats framing the garret pull away first to reveal the stairway leading up to it and then, during the Act I love duet, disappear entirely into the wings, opening the lovers to the rooftops of Paris. In Act II the Café Momus pulls downstage to bring the intimate activities inside, and Act III evokes the grimy edge of Paris perfectly. Director Harry Silverstein drew naturalistic acting from the whole cast, and even had the chorus looking spontaneous as its members roamed the stage in Acts II and III.

As for the cast, Gheorgiù and Beczala made a sweet and ardent pair of lovers. The soprano can look and sound girlish, and she made telling use of her relatively small voice by infusing her music with long-breathed phrasing. Her best moments were the quietest, most delicate phrases, especially the evanescent end of Act III and the fading of Mimì in Act IV. Elsewhere, the creamy top half of her voice made the musical peaks shine. Beczala’s bright, high tenor scaled the heights of his arias with ease, his effortless phrasing vigorous and youthful. There wasn’t a hint of artifice in his portrayal, and he was canny enough to imply from the start just how jealous a lover he would be.

Their big moments were gems, every one of them. Beczala started off strong in “Che gelida manina,” and Gheorgiu followed with a coy “Mi chiamano Mimì” before “O soave fanciulla” put the cap on Act I with a fully realized, beautifully sung duet. Gheorgiu got stronger as the opera progressed, melting hearts with a tenderly affecting “Addio, senza rancor” in Act III, then joining Beczala for that unforgettable duet. She touchingly faded away in Act IV, though not without slipping in a few arching phrases before expiring. Her recollection of “Che gelida manina” induced tears.

As the secondary pair, French soprano Norah Ansellem deployed a steely sound and saucy demeanor as Musetta, while American baritone Brian Mulligan brought a welcome purity of tone to Marcello. Their byplay managed to feel fresh in Act II, as she teases him with a showy “Quando m’en vo’” and he plays the huffy ex-lover only to reconcile after she sends her aging paramour away. Mulligan’s silken sound matched well with Beczala’s for a touching Act IV duet, “O Mimì, tu più non torni.”

The men did well across the board. Oren Gradus gave Colline’s coat arietta the proper gravitas and Brian Leerhuber completed the quartet of Bohemians as a resonant Schaunard. As the landlord Benoit and the geezer Alcindoro, veteran bass Dale Travis actually sang all the notes and sang them well. High marks, too, to the chorus, which matched the orchestra in attentiveness to detail and responsiveness to Luisotti’s lead.

In the end, it was Luisotti’s show. He proved himself to be an opera conductor to compare with the greats. And he’s only 47 years old. Musically, SFO’s future appears to be in good hands.

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Beethoven, Fidelio

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By Bernard Jacobson

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Portland Opera, soloists, cond. Arthur Fagen, original production by Chris Alexander, stage direction by Helena Binder, sets by Robert Dahlstrom, costumes by Catherine Meacham Hunt, lighting designer Alan Burrett, chorus master Robert Ainsley, Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, 15.11.2008 (BJ)

Dubious as I am about directorially updated opera, having seen some photographs of the contemporary settings on the company’s web site, I reprehensibly went to Portland Opera’s Fidelio with a dismissive first sentence all ready in my mind.

Well, forget it. Originally conceived by the multi-talented Chris Alexander for Seattle Opera, and brought to the Portland stage by Helena Binder, this was a production updated with such intelligence and insight as to achieve a truly revelatory realization of the work Donald Tovey described as “in Germany, the opera to which every right-thinking married couple goes on the anniversary of their wedding.”

Nor, having acknowledged that my prejudices simply don’t apply in this instance, do I in any case feel able to offer a review in conventional musicologically informed style. To see just this opera at just this extraordinary moment in the history of the United States was an absolutely special experience. Think of it: it was impossible not to see the prison where the action takes place as Guantánamo. The villainous prison governor, Don Pizarro, was obviously a stand-in for Dick Cheney (or perhaps for his more clueless but no less culpable sidekick in the White House). As Don Fernando, the bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd, a giant of a man, may not have been a physically apt impersonator of the president-elect, often affectionately referred to as “the skinny guy,” but his majestic demeanor and his rich-toned singing offered a satisfying likeness to the Obama oratorical style and unrufflable elegance. And in the final scene the atmosphere that flooded the stage with renewed hope and recovered freedom inescapably mirrored the sense of new beginnings now evident in a country that can once again begin to hold up its head among the civilized nations.

There were a few questionable details. I doubt whether, in Pizarro’s prison, the man watching the closed-circuit televisions monitoring the place would have been allowed to do his job in shirt-sleeved civvies–among all those uniformed guards, he looked more like a supervisor from Portland Opera’s production department. The confrontation between Leonore and Pizarro in the dungeon was dramatically unconvincing, because with his massive pistol in hand Pizarro would surely have blown Leonore away long before she brought out her own weapon. And the idea, in a production sung in German, of doing the spoken dialogue in English didn’t work for me; I hardly understood a word of it, because I couldn’t help hearing in my mind the so pointed German original. (How, by the way, can people leave out those two wonderful lines, Florestan’s “Meine Leonore, was hast du für mich getan?” and Leonore’s heart-stopping response, “Nichts, nichts, mein Florestan!”?)

In a cast of good but uneven quality, Greer Grimsley was a wonderfully and credibly vicious Don Pizarro, Arthur Woodley a sympathetic Rocco, and Jonathan Boyd and Jennifer Welch-Babidge made a likable pair as Jacquino and Marzelline, if perhaps they were less impressive vocally than Brendan Tuohy’s strongly sung First Prisoner and Jonathan Kimble’s Second Prisoner. In the central role of Fidelio/Leonore, Lori Phillips started well and acted with great conviction throughout, though by Act II she was sounding vocally strained. The Florestan, Jay Hunter Morris, didn’t erase memories of the great Jon Vickers, who simply was Florestan for many of us, but he did arouse them, and that is high praise.

I have to say that, under Arthur Fagen’s baton, the orchestra was hardly recognizable as the assured ensemble that played La traviata so brilliantly a month earlier. The performance I attended was the last of four, yet it took fully half an hour before conductor and singers achieved anything like closeness of ensemble, and the string tone was relatively feeble The horns, however, coped well with their challenging parts, and Robert Ainsley’s chorus was excellent.

About one specific musical idea I am in two minds. In Act I, the march that accompanies Pizarro’s entrance was done in a recorded version played back through the house audio system. The resulting denatured sound certainly jibed with the production’s emphasis on the totalitarian context of the story, but I regretted not hearing one of the most arresting numbers in the piece in its full sonorous power.

In the end, though, what mattered most was the humanity that shone through this Fidelio. The sight of that motley assemblage of ex-prisoners and their families milling around the stage in the final scene, amputees and a dwarf among them, was tonic to the spirit. I cried a lot.

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