By Robert Croan
It’s an admirable and ambitious undertaking for a regional orchestra to put on a staged production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. It’s also expensive ($350,000 budget in this case) and risky.
South Florida Symphony took those risks, went all the way and offered Porgy and Bess as its featured production this season, with performances – led by music director Sebrina Maria Alfonso – in Miami, Key West, and finally on Jan. 23 – the performance reviewed – in Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center.
The 2,658-seat Au-Rene theater was close to sold out, the ticket situation just before curtain time was pretty chaotic, and the audience obviously considered this to be a gala event – something special and out-of-the-ordinary for the orchestra and for the community at large.
There was also historical significance: In lieu of physical sets, Paul Tate dePoo designed projections and video mapping based on the original sets from the premiere 1935 Broadway production. In addition, it turned out that the original costumes were in Florida, and those were used here as well.
Still, despite Gershwin’s incomparable score, there’s a nagging element of racism in this work. Based on a 1925 novel by a white man, DuBose Heyward, it depicts African-Americans from the point of view of white people a century ago.
Director Richard Jay-Alexander minimized the stereotype elements, playing up the universal emotional message of oppression, poverty, love and death, giving more prominence, perhaps, to the role of the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, as the catalyst for the tragedy. Musically, Alfonso brought out the symphonic side of Gershwin’s score, at times at the expense of the jazz and folk features that make it unique.
Jay-Alexander staged the work in front of the live orchestra, with the players upstage conducted by Alfonso, her back to the singers. This layout made for inevitable discrepancies between instruments and voices, and for the loss of subtle details of instrumental color, but for the most part the orchestral work was commendably accurate and in sync. Pianist Richard Morrison, who gets a real workout in this score, was particularly impressive.
More damaging were the uneven acoustics. I was not able to ascertain whether amplification was used, but the volume of individual singers varied noticeably as they moved from one spot to another on the stage. The words were mostly unintelligible in the large space (excepting the famous songs, to which many of us already know the lyrics), even though the opera is in English.
Supertitles would have been helpful, as used in most opera performances these days. Porgy and Bess exists in versions variously intended for opera and Broadway, and this was definitely the operatic incarnation.
These and other small flaws mattered less than they might have, because the totality was such an absorbing theatrical experience. Jay-Alexander molded the cast into a tight ensemble – each member, however, projecting a sharply delineated character – that made it easy to forget the theatrical limitations of the concert format.
The singers were first-rate, from the title characters as vividly personified by Neil Nelson and Brandie Sutton, to the radiant-sounding soprano of Simone Paulwell as Serena, the sepulchral contralto of Gwendolyn Brown as Mariah, the robust bass of Michael Redding as Crown and the superb 38-member chorus directed by Guergan Tsenov. It’s testimony to the abundance of excellent operatically trained (and often underused) African-American singers there are today. Each of these artists would be an asset to any major opera company, here or abroad. But they were more than singers; they were singing actors who brought every moment of this wonderful show to life.
The ensemble scenes were particularly effective: the spiritual lament, “Gone, Gone, Gone”; the gospel song led by Bess, “Oh the Train is at de Station”; the exuberant “I Can’t Sit Down,” as the townfolk prepare to go to the picnic. The great duet scenes were highlights. The opulent sounds of Nelson and Sutton soared with the sweep of Puccinian love duets in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” while Sutton showed Tosca-like temperament in her scene with Crown – a segment of hair-raising operatic verismo that ends with a rape.
Bess doesn’t get a song to herself, but Nelson established Porgy’s simple goodness with an irresistible rendition of “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,” later tugging at the heartstrings with “Where’s My Bess” and the concluding “I’m On My Way.”
The great female solos go to supporting characters. Kyaunnee Richardson opened the opera with a lyrical rendition of “Summertime” – sung by Clara, who never returns except for a brief reprise of the show’s most famous excerpt. D.C.-based soprano Paulwell gave big vocal thrills as Serena with a shatteringly sad delivery of “My Man’s Gone Now” – which one critic recently called “opera’s greatest lament since Dido’s in Purcell’s opera.”
Jermaine Smith, who has enacted Sportin’ Life all over the world, was listed as well in the program as associate music director/fight coordinator. On stage, he was an impressively kinetic figure, his tenor voice occasionally blossoming into full-bodied high notes, but he was oddly ineffective in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” coming into his own only with a slinky and menacing persona in “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.”
Smaller roles were cannily cast. Eric Shane seemed to be having fun with Jake’s “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” Cheryl Warfield as the Strawberry Woman, Anthony McGlaun as the Honey Man, and James White as the Crab Man each contributed telling cameos.