Sunday, August 19, 2007

We Loves You, Porgy

[This is my review of a joint production of Porgy and Bess by Union Avenue Opera and The Black Rep for KDHX-FM]

Although Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, it took (to quote one of the opera's lyrics) "a long pull to get there". The original 1935 Theatre Guild production was a financial failure, and critical reaction was mixed and, from a contemporary standpoint, clueless. New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson dismissed it out of hand, and the paper's music critic, Olin Downes, found the mix of vernacular musical elements and sophisticated symphonic form completely baffling (a position which he would later recant).

Despite revivals of interest in the 1940s and 1950s, Porgy and Bess remained an essentially marginal work until a 1976 production by the Houston Grand Opera of the complete score-restoring nearly an hour of music that had been cut from earlier productions-demonstrated conclusively that Gershwin's crowning achievement was also a great work of musical art. "Seen alongside the humanity in the music and text of Porgy and Bess", wrote Leighton Kerner in 1989, "other American operas seem slight".

That said, the piece is still a major challenge for any opera company. The cast is large, the music complex, and the demands of the staging can be daunting. Low voices-bass/baritones and baritones-dominate the leading male roles, making projection a potential issue, as does Gershwin's penchant for polyphonic choral writing. Add in the fact that the opera runs, in its original uncut version, over three and one-half hours with intermission, and you have a project guaranteed to give any producer nightmares.

In light of this, Union Avenue Opera and The Black Rep are to be commended for even attempting a production of this American classic, even if it is the heavily edited version that was more common before the 1970s. If the results are not always successful, it's not for lack of talent or dedication on the part of all concerned. It may just be that Porgy and Bess is simply too big to conveniently fit the small space at the Union Avenue Christian Church.

Certainly the cast is a strong one. In deference to the demands of an expanded production schedule-nine performances in just over a week-the leading roles of Porgy, Bess, and Sportin' Life are double-cast. On opening night, Lester Lynch cut a powerful figure as Porgy with a strong, clear voice and imposing stage presence. Dara Rahming sang beautifully as Bess, but I felt she didn't project the kind of sexual allure that would explain why she's the lust object of every male in Catfish Row. As the morally flexible vice peddler Sportin' Life, Jermaine Smith (who was such a great Zodzetrick in Opera Theatre's Treemonisha back in 2000) turned in what was, for me, the strongest all-around performance of the evening, with a clear, flexible voice and dance moves that remind me that the role was, from the beginning, a kind of homage to the vaudeville stage.

Brian Keith Johnson is a first-rate Crown, the brutal stevedore from whom Bess is unable to break free, and Lawrence Craig is the very essence of the ethical family man as the fisherman Jake. Lillian Roberts is vocally powerful as Serena, although her elocution could use a bit of work, and Trina Renay is a fine Clara.

There's no chorus master credited, so I have assume company artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover was responsible for the generally fine sound of both the orchestra and chorus. That's no small task; Gershwin makes the chorus an important character in its own right, often commenting on and participating in the action. Many scenes feature virtuoso writing for chorus members, a classic example being the Act II "storm" sequence in which six completely independent vocal lines slowly merge with the chorus to produce the spiritual "Oh, de Lawd shake the Heavens". The acoustics at the church aren't always friendly to this sort of thing, and it's to Schoonover's credit that it all sounds as good as it does.

Black Rep founder Ron Himes is responsible for the stage direction. Most of the time it works well enough, although there are moments when the challenge of moving so many performers around in such a small space appears to have been simply overwhelming. Himes has also make some character-related changes which I found a bit questionable, including a sequence in which Bess is far too willing to take the New York-bound boat with Sportin' Life.

Still, these are relatively minor flaws in what is, overall, an impressive presentation of a musically and dramatically powerful work. If you have any interest at all in one of the great operas of the previous century, you must see Union Avenue Opera's Porgy and Bess. It's on stage nightly through this Saturday [August 26, 2007] at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright. Call 314-361-2881 for ticket information. Be aware that parking is limited and the tickets are general admission, so you'd be wise to arrive at least a half-hour before curtain.