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 Performances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit - Ensemble Correspondances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances led by Sébastien Daucé, the glorious culmination of the finest London Festival of the Baroque in years on the theme "Treasures of the Grand Siècle". Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's announcement that he would be "Roi du Soleil", a ruler whose magnificence would transform France, and the world, in a new age of splendour.

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

Seven, they are Seven , op.30; Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74. David Butt Philip (tenor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director), Philharmonia Voices, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 20 May 2018.

Charpentier Histoires sacrées, staged - London Baroque Festival

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, at St John's Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018. This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.

Aïda in Seattle: don’t mention the war!

When Francesca Zambello presented Aïda at her own Glimmerglass Opera in 2012, her staging was, as they say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Fighter planes strafed the Egyptian headquarters as the curtain rose, water-boarding was the favored form of interrogation, Radames was executed by lethal injection.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from Porgy and Bess [Photo courtesy of Doug Wonders]
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’s Porgy and Bess Got Plenty O’ Plenty

A review by David Abrams

Above: Scene from Porgy and Bess

Photos courtesy of Doug Wonders

 

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.

_U2G0215.gif 

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.

_U2G0364.gif 

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.]

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):