Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Oedipe at Covent Garden

George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO

‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’

Madame Butterfly , ENO

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.

Great Scott Wows San Diego

On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.

Manitoba Opera: Of Mice and Men

Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.

The Rose and the Ring

Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.

The Lighthouse at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.

King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.

Powerful chemistry in La Cenerentola in Cologne

Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.

The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf

Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.

San Diego Opera Presents a Tragic Madama Butterfly

On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.

Simon Rattle conducts Tristan und Isolde

New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Laquita Mitchell (Bess) and Eric Owens (Porgy) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
03 Jul 2009

Porgy and Bess in San Francisco

For Americans of older generations Porgy and Bess is surely a primal experience, formed by the 1959 Otto Preminger film with Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin’ Life, the audio recording derived from the 1952 London production with Leontyne Price as Bess, and a first encounter with Porgy and Bess as an opera in the artistically satisfying, and well traveled 1976 Houston production (was it twenty-five performances in the War Memorial Opera House?).

George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Click here for casting and other production information

Above: Laquita Mitchell (Bess) and Eric Owens (Porgy) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

 

Maybe even some Americans were lucky enough to see the 1986 Glyndebourne production or its 1993 televised version, fabled as the best Porgy ever. Thus, with some help from its several Broadway-type attempts, the Gershwin Porgy has become a sing-along — we know every word and every note.

The San Francisco performances are a reprise of the 2005 Washington Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello, a production that has recently stopped off at the operas of Los Angeles and Chicago as well. Ms. Zambello is a noted director of large-scale opera, the Ring currently underway at the San Francisco and Washington operas, and War and Peace at the Seattle and Metropolitan operas, Billy Budd at Covent Garden as examples.

Mounting a Porgy is no small task, it has a huge cast, nine principal singers, sixteen named and solo roles that derive from an ensemble in San Francisco of forty-six [!] Black singers, not to mention three White speaking roles. Three (or more) fight scenes must be staged, plus three (or more) production numbers must be choreographed. It is scored for a full symphony orchestra that wails with the sonic abandon of big band. Can Porgy be crushed under its own weight?

The answer is an emphatic yes! Putting Porgy in the charge of a big time opera director, albeit a theatrically and operatically savvy one, magnified its weight, as did the absolute top operatic quality of its protagonists and ensemble singers (do not say chorus) placed in the hands of John DeMain, the world’s most experienced Porgy conductor. And all this thrust onto a major American opera stage where it is in de facto competition with the sophisticated operas of Benjamin Britten (maybe its closest foreign relative), not to mention the verismo of Puccini.

The end result of all this operatic know how simply lays bare the weaknesses of this Gershwin masterpiece. It does not know if it is an opera of sorts or a Broadway musical, and there is simply too much of it. Its original four hours were mercifully reduced to three hours fifteen minutes in this production, however its original two intermissions were reduced to one, making each of the two parts nearly an hour and a half. One might have preferred the longer version, but in three parts, i.e. a second pit stop. It was a long haul.

Porgy_SFO_2.gifChauncey Packer (Sportin’ Life) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

The decision to unify its disparate stories and elements within the confines of a single unit set was a laudable, theatrically valid solution to objectify Gershwin’s well crafted dramatic structure, but it also brought visual boredom. The intimacy needed to make small scale, essentially jazz based vocals real was lost in the vast spaces of the omnipresent two level Catfish Row with a monumental warehouse door stage left (Jake’s fishing boat was pushed in and out from here as was the interior of Porgy’s hovel). Several extraordinary moments though stand out in this generally solid staging, the Kittiwah Island departure as one example, the hurricane, and particularly the moment when Bess, high on heroin is seduced by Sportin’ Life.

Strangely moving was the sense that Gershwin’s Blacks, the 1930’s Blacks, have become not only mainstream American culture but are fully realized performers of international musical arts, led in opera by some of our greatest Porgy interpreters, like Willard White (the Glyndebourne Porgy) and a host of others. The cast for the San Francisco production gave convincing if not definitive performances, led by the Porgy of baritone Eric Owens who bestowed elegant phrasing onto Gershwin’s lines. Laquita Mitchell gave a moving and real performance, vocally and physically, as Bess. Once past mourning Sammy Davis, Jr., Chauncey Packer delivered the goods as Sportin’ Life. We wanted more physical and sexual charisma from the Crown played by Lester Lynch, and in general more distinct personalities from the other principal singers as well.

The underpinnings of Porgy are humble. It is an intimate, uncomplicated story of love and lust in an ambience of poverty well known to operatic verismo, though in Porgy there are no issues, no complaint of injustice, no philosophic formulation of fate, and finally only desperate hope. It can be and is everyone’s story at distinct moments in human history. The challenge is to create an atmosphere for this humility in what is, pure and simple, an extravagant art form, and it was here that this production failed.

The copyright for this American operatic masterpiece (who cares if it has short comings, and is not really stage worthy, at least in this version) expires in 2012. The iron fist exercised by the Gershwin family over its productions will relax, the stiff royalty fees will no longer inhibit production, the insistence that its actors be black and that its locales be specific will no longer hold. Producers will be able to experiment with making this document of main-stream American culture (hardly Black-American culture) into viable theater.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):