Tuesday, June 16, 2009

San Francisco Opera, Porgy and Bess, June 12, 2009

Every great once in a while, a critic faces that most daunting of tasks, writing about a production that has no flaws. Such a one is San Francisco's production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," a work of vastly misunderstood genius that has finally, in the past few decades, received its due. This derives largely from the efforts of SFO general director David Gockley, who oversaw the first-ever production of Gershwin's complete score in 1976 at the Houston Grand Opera, 41 years after the premiere of the opera's Broadway-ized version in Boston. That said, I'm now going to hand out compliments like party favors.

Our Porgy, baritone Eric Owens, is a force of nature, rumbling away at this powerful lead role and harvesting every bit of its pathos. His showpiece is "Bess, You is My Woman," but he also stars in "Little Stars," a deceptively calm and poignant prelude to the violent actions that immediately follow: the killing of Robbins by Crown, the resident bad guy of Catfish Row. (After Crown flees from the law, Porgy takes in his beleaguered girlfriend, Bess, and the tale begins.)

Bess, fixed firmly between the sweetness she has found with Porgy and the animal lust she feels for Crown, demands a fine balance. Laquita Mitchell, equipped with a full lyric spinto soprano, fills the bill well; she is all woman, and burns brightest in "I Loves You, Porgy," after her dalliance with the fugitive Crown on Kittiwah Island. Lester Lynch endows Crown with a delicious brand of animal depravity, earning a melodrama-style booing from the audience at curtain call. His physical presence was thrilling, especially in the fight with Robbins (eviscerating him with a cotton hook) and his abusive encounter with Bess in the Act II Kittiwah scene.

Playing Sportin' Life, the dope dealer once performed by the likes of Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr., is tenor Chauncey Parker. It's a hell of a lot to ask a single performer to produce operatic notes, jazz rhythms and an evening full of slick dance maneuvers, but Parker does so with aplomb, providing particular delight with the bible-thumper taunt "It Ain't Necessarily So" (featuring such classic Ira Gershwin rhymes as "He made his home in / that fish's abdomen").

The hope of the next generation is evoked by the newlyweds Jake and Clara, a fisherman and his wife bringing up a newborn babe. Eric Greene and Angel Blue play these parts with a great sense of joy, Greene with the rascally commentary "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," and Blue with the all-important framework song "Summertime." The song's oddly fetching match of happy lyrics and sad harmonic underpinnings gets its full explanation here, serving as both a hopeful prelude and, during a horrific hurricance, Clara's fearful reprise. Blue's performance of it, in both cases, is sumptuous. The most gripping song of all is "My Man's Gone Now," a funeral lament sung by Karen Slack as Robbins's widow Serena. Slack's rendition is heartbreaking and vocally spectacular.

The supporting ensemble is amazingly good, fueling Catfish Row with a constant flow of energy, as well as handling the difficult chorus parts, inspired by negro spirituals. Most thrilling of all was the uproar created at the finale of the hurricane scene, which was enthralling in its sheer power. Give credit to stage director Francesca Zambello and Ian Robertson for marshalling these forces, as well as Jonathan Rider for choregraphing the excellent fight scenes. The set design by Peter J. Davison - from a Washington National Opera production - sets the scene among towering metal walls and rusted railings, creating a warehouse-like atmosphere that is both rugged and beautiful. Giant fallen letters from a decrepit amusement park sign give the Kittiwah Island set a fantastical aura, like the ruins of an ancient civilization. John DeMain and his orchestra played with great vigor, attacking what must be a challenging score for orchestral musicians.

And about that score. As I implied before, Gershwin's original work was pretty much eviscerated, since no opera house would allow black performers and since the composer's Broadway backers wouldn't tolerate such a long and musically adventurous piece. Which is a profound shame, because the complete work presented here is truly a revelation. Steeped in folk, jazz and classical forms as very few composers could be (and having taken trips to South Carolina to study the Gullah culture that informs the story), Gershwin tapped into a spiritual singing style that fits the traditional forms of opera surprisingly well, backing these scenes with lush orchestral accompaniment, but also stepped out to pepper the score with the jazzier songs that had made his reputation. Stringing everything together with traditional recitative, he succeeded in blending all these elements into a purely American artform that, thanks to a nationwide myopia about issue both artistic and racial, died off as soon as it was created. It was perhaps too far-seeing for its own good, and it will now be up to a new century of Americans to see "Porgy and Bess" for the work of genius that it is.

Through June 27, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $15-$290, http://www.sfopera.com/, 415/864-3330.
Image: Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell as Porgy and Bess. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

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