10 Apr 2014

Syracuse Opera’s Porgy and Bess
Got Plenty O’ Plenty

The company ends its 2013-14 season on a high note with a staged performance of Gershwin’s theatrical masterpiece

Syracuse Opera returned to the grandeur of the 2,117-seat Crouse Hinds Theater Sunday for its 2013-14 season-closing production of an adaptation of Gershwin’s theatrical masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. (The company’s two earlier chamber-sized productions, The Tragedy of Carmen and Maria de Buenos Aires, were housed at the more intimate Carrier Theater.)

Proponents of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess champion the truncated version as a vehicle better suited to live theater, which may be true — although purists are likely to disagree. But judging from the over-the-top ovation by the near-capacity crowd at curtain call, I’d say this version appears to be perfectly sufficient. Moreover, Sunday’s performance was, by any measure, an artistic success.

Syracuse Opera had been publicizing this one-time only event (there was no repeat performance) as a “semi-staged” production. Come curtain time, however, the audience discovered that it ain’t necessarily so. This performance had the look and feel of a full-blown staged production, complete with costumes and stage action. If it didn’t capture the substance of Catfish Row, at least it captured its essence — and soul. Except for the placement of the orchestra at the back half of the stage (instead of in the pit) and a static set that did not change, this was a complete operatic experience. And a handsome one, at that.


One reason for the success of this production was Syracuse Opera’s decision to engage Hope Clarke, the first African-American to direct and choreograph Porgy and Bess both here and abroad. Clarke’s directorial touches included enlisting the 44-member Syracuse Opera Chorus as active participants in the musical numbers. The chorus, well prepared under the direction of Chorus Master Joseph Downing, swayed, danced and waived their arms high into the air during numbers such as Oh, I can’t sit down — at times resembling a revivalist church gathering. Clarke’s ensemble spirituals and laments were handsomely composed on the stage, and her poignant staging of Robbins’s wake was truly touching.

Another reason for the company’s success was the direction of the singers and instrumentalists by Douglas Kinney Frost. Conducting the orchestra with his back to the singers, Frost — aided by display screens strategically placed at various parts of the stage — managed to juggle competing forces with no major mishaps. (It customarily takes a performance or two to work out the kinks.) Frost had just one shot to get it right — and he did.

Perhaps the single greatest reason for the production’s success was the quality of the acting and singing. Ironically, it was the supporting roles that impressed me the most — particularly Michael Redding (Crown), Aundi Marie Moore (Serena), Brittany Walker (Clara) and Jorell Williams (Jake). The performances by the principals were strong, but uneven.

Laquita Mitchell is no stranger to the role of Bess, having sung (with Eric Owens as Porgy) in the 2009 Francesca Zambello production at San Francisco Opera. Mitchell looked the part from the moment she took stage — drugged out and slinking across the floor much like the way Maria describes her: a “liquor guzzlin’ slut.”

Mitchell was in excellent voice throughout the afternoon, using her darkly tinged soprano to great effect in What you want wid Bess, sung while trying to get out of the clutches of the abusive Crown. Mitchell’s acting, however, was less persuasive. She could not project her character’s agonizing ambivalence in choosing between the man who accepts and loves her and Sportin’ Life’s happy dust.


As the proud cripple, Porgy, Gordon Hawkins sang with a hefty baritone that easily projected throughout the large hall. Like Mitchell, Hawkins had performed the role in a Zambello production (Chicago Lyric Opera, 2008). He forged a commanding stage presence from his very first entrance and his acting skills were thoroughly convincing. But Hawkins’s vibrato Sunday was uncomfortably wide — especially when singing in full voice or at the top of his range. This in turn muddied his words and rendered his diction virtually unintelligible, as was evident in his third act lament, Bess, o where's my Bess.

Victor Ryan Robertson fashioned a suitably flamboyant Sportin’ Life, Catfish Row’s friendly neighborhood drug pusher who presses Bess to come with him to Harlem and live the high life. Looking especially unctuous in Costume Designer Jodi Luce’s colorful three-piece brown suit (with ample pockets to hold his stash of happy dust), Robertson tickled the crowd with his cunningly innocent revision of Biblical history in It Ain’t Necessarily So. Robertson’s pleasant tenor, though not strong, was always enjoyable. He was the only singer whose diction remained crystal clear throughout the performance.

Baritone Michael Redding as the villainous Crown gave a standout performance in this production. The Atlanta native used his entire body to craft a believable character who was both fearless and frightening. (His menacingly diabolical laugh alone was enough to terrorize the God-fearing denizens of Catfish Row — and the listener.) Redding’s voice is strong, richly hued and attractive to the ear — as was clear from his cocky number, A red-headed woman and his duet with Mitchell at the conclusion of What you want wid Bess (which for me was the highpoint of this production). At curtain call, Redding seemed surprised when the resounding applause at his entrance soon turned to boos (the ultimate compliment for a villainous role such as Crown).

Soprano Aundi Marie Moore delivered a strong and commanding vocal effort as Serena. This is a role Moore knows well, having sung the part at the Virginia Opera and Atlanta Opera, and it showed. Her superb delivery of the lament My man’s gone now — sung with great depth of feeling at the wake of her character’s husband, Robbins (killed at the hands of Crown during a craps game) — engaged the listener in a true “lump-in-the-throat” moment.

Among the minor roles, Brittany Walker’s Clara delivered the spiritual Summertime in a clean lyric soprano darkened with some pronounced mezzo timbres, although she tended to end her phrases somewhat abruptly. As the fisherman, Jake, Jorell Williams sang with a strongly defined baritone in the rowing song It take a long pull to get there. Larry D Hylton, who did double-duty as Serena’s husband Robbins and the Crabman, hammed it up to perfection in the comedic “Vendors Trio.”

As a conductor, Frost found tempos that were mostly on the mark and well-suited to the abilities of the singers. The effervescent Overture bubbled with joy, and the opera’s signature duet Bess, You Is My Woman came off splendidly. I was disappointed, however, with his lethargic tempo in the otherwise snappy There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York, which all but drained the pizazz out of Sportin’ Life’s splashiest number.

The instrumentalists from Symphoria navigated Gershwin’s demanding musical score with precision and maintained an excellent balance with the singers and chorus at all times. The pernicious xylophone solo at the beginning of the Overture (and several places later on) was played in dazzling fashion by percussionist Ernest Muzquiz.

Those listeners who entered the theater wondering why an opera in English required projected supertitles soon got their answer. In DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, from which the libretto is taken, the characters in Catfish Row speak the Gullah dialect (English, with Western and Central Africa inflections) common in South Carolina and other parts of the South. It’s difficult to follow this dialogue intelligibly without the supertitles, especially when diction is muffled as was the case here.

I’ve long wondered why a work with such a parade of catchy tunes and colorfully orchestrated accompaniments would not have been a hit during the composer’s lifetime. It wasn’t until 1976 that the full-score version of Porgy and Bess was mounted (by Houston Grand Opera Company), and the work never made it to the Metropolitan Opera stage until 1985 — some 50 years after the opera’s premiere (on Broadway).

I attended the uncut Houston Grand Opera version on Broadway in 1976, and I can tell you that next to Le Nozze di Figaro, it was the best four hours of musical theater I can remember. But I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed this shortened version of Porgy. Regardless of the size of the hourglass, Gershwin’s tunes still reach the ears from top to bottom.

David Abrams
CNY Café Momus

[This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]