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Performances

© Philip Newton
26 Aug 2018

Porgy and Bess in Seattle

When this production debuted last summer at Glimmerglass, my Opera Today colleague James Sohre found it a thoroughly successful mounting of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's noble but problematic opera.

Porgy and Bess in Seattle

A review by Roger Downey

Above: Porgy & Bess [Photo © Philip Newton]

 

I am delighted that Mr. Sohre's review is only a click away. It frees me to register a strongly differing opinion. I found the staging not only ugly to look at but ill-serving of the work itself.

The setting of Porgy and Bess is a row of tenement dwellings abutting a steamy, stormy channel of the Atlantic Ocean on the southern side of the city of Charleston, South Carolina. To present this shabby but exotic locale this production provides something resembling a Motel 6 composed of rusty corrugated sheet metal, shut off from the natural and human world by a towering sliding door of the same material.

The interior of this container is illuminated for the most part by an undifferentiated wash of rust-colored light, varied from time to time by mustard and vinegar overtones. The color palette could not be better devised to wash out the varied black skin tones of the cast. In a work which is the very definition of "an ensemble opera," the performers face an uphill struggle to make their characters distinct.

The blocking of the action renders their effort even more difficult by keeping the ensemble lined up like an oratorio chorus, letting individuals step forward for individual turns only to fade back into the murk. When the hurricane blows in act two, it batters the tin box, but no physical emotional wind sweeps through the people inside it: they are inert as Neolithic standing stones.

I am certain that the show Mr. Sohre saw in Cooperstown looked a lot different. The Alice Busch Theater is a state-of- the-art jewel box seating fewer than 900 people; Marion McCaw Hall in Seattle is more than three times as large, and its acoustics vary not just row to row, but seat to seat.

There's no way, no matter how sensitively mounted, this production could come across with equal weight in these two halls.

Nonetheless, this is very much recognizable as a Zambello production. She is not so much a "concept" director as a conceptual magpie. Her shows are like theatrical pull-aparts composed of half a dozen contrasting doughs: slice of life, presentational, Broadway-glitzy, expressionistic, according to whatever seems to work at the moment.

In her Aïda here this season (also originating at Glimmerglass), she offered everything from static, stand-and- deliver Stivanello to hokey Broadway hoe-down side by side in the triumphal scene. Much the same kind of megillah pervades the long picnic sequence and final scenes of Porgy.

By the time the show's over (divided into two exhausting hour-plus-long acts instead of the original three), the lingering impression is of intermittent glories (like the mighty Mary Elizabeth Williams' "My Man Done Gone") and lovely flashes (like the cameos of Ibidunni Ojikutu and Ashley Faatoalia as Strawberry Woman and Crabman) embedded in trudging routine.

The principals do their best under these dire conditions.

Lester Lynch sings Crown with grinding menace, but his costume makes him look less a brutal longshoreman than a suburban daddy longing to get his feet up in the Barcalounger. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a debutante Bess,

doesn't seem comfortable with the tessitura of the role (she's known best in England for her Butterfly and Rondine), but she's painfully believable as the helpless creature and blazes up in her (wholly inappropriate) Apache dance with the veteran Sportin' Life of Jermaine Smith.

Kevin Short's Porgy is grandly sung, but he's hampered from the git-go by his striking size and the sorry modern tendency to minimize the character's disability. Heyward's Porgy was crippled from birth and unable to walk at all; Short's Porgy uses (and sometimes forgets to use) a single crutch. He looks and sounds more than a match for his nemesis Crown, leaving the central conflict of the opera utterly implausible. When a Porgy could obviously lay out his opponent with one blow of his crutch, what's left of the story?

A gentle suggestion for my reader: Heyward's original novel is easily accessible on line. To read it is to appreciate for the first time what a marvel of compression the Porgy libretto is: very nearly as fine as the unforgettable songs Gershwin wrote for it.

Roger Downey


Cast and production information:

Kevin Short (Porgy); Elizabeth Llewellen (Bess); Lester Lynch (Crown); Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life); Mary Elizabeth Williams (Serena); Brandie Sutton (Clara); Edward Graves (Robbins); Martin Bakari (Honeyman). Original production: Francesca Zambello, reproduction by Garnett Bruce. Scenic design: Peter J. Davidson; Lighting: Mark McCullough; Costumes: Paul Tazewell, assistant Loren Shaw; Choreography: Eric Sean Fogel; Chorus master: John Keene. Conductor: John DeMain, members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

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