Thank the gods Porgy and Bess continues to age well, and thank the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for reprising their semi-staged, abridged concert version of George Gershwin’s classic opera last week for four performances beginning Thursday night at Strathmore. And thank goodness most performing arts organizations adhere to the Gershwin estate’s stipulation that Porgy and Bess must be performed with a black cast. Because let’s admit it — P&B provides opportunities to put talented performers center stage that are otherwise marginalized or ignored all too often during casting decisions.
Exhibit A of this ongoing, pernicious state of affairs is Larry D. Hylton’s website. The talented and charismatic performer nearly stole the show , once again taking on the role of Sportin’ Life, as he did three years ago. Hylton can sing, he can dance, and he has stage presence galore. Yet after this weekend, his website lists only one upcoming series of performances; he’ll be performing Sportin’ Life in July with Cincinnati Opera. Robert Cantrell, who stepped in to sing Porgy at the last minute and delivered a heartfelt, convincing performance, doesn’t have any performances of any kind listed on the coming up section of his website. Maybe these two artists are just behind on updating their websites - it happens to everyone , but… the next role coming up for Laquita Mitchell, who sang Bess, is - wait for it - Bess! At least Mitchell has sung a couple of Violettas recently and is in demand as a soloist with orchestras worldwide, but she too, has a career that includes a lot of Bess performances. The same can more or less be said for the rest of the leads, notably Lester Lynch’s Crown, Reyna Carguill’s Serena, and Jasmine Habersham’s Clara, rounding out an ensemble that performed effectively in the small space in front of the orchestra, directed by Hana S. Sharif. So yeah. thank god for Porgy, because while some companies are making progress (notably Washington National Opera), for the most part the opera world remains stubbornly mired in stereotypical casting, or something perhaps something even worse.
Why am I going on about this? Because apart from Mitchell and Lynch it’s unlikely I’ll ever have the opportunity to mention the names of these performers in another review of an opera any time soon, or at least until another production of Porgy comes to town. And that’s not okay.
As for the show itself, overall it was a solid reminder of why Porgy and Bess endures as a mainstay of American musical culture. Briskly paced (cut down substantially and clocking in at 2 hours, 10 minutes, including an intermission), the omissions put the emphasis on story over characters. That does a bit of a disservice to the expansive nature of the whole which makes it such a classic, but not to the point where it turns into “Porgy’s Greatest Excerpts.” Credit for that goes to the invested, engaged cast and the glorious Morgan State University Choir, essentially a character in its own right.
From its debut in 1935, there have always been questions about where Porgy and Bess fits. Is it an opera? A musical? An operetta? Gershwin called it a “folk opera,” which feels like a punt today as much as it must have in 1935, when he coined the phrase. A compelling case can be made for presenting it as either an opera or a musical theater piece (for example, “Summertime” works best sung as a bluesy jazz number instead of an aria), and ideally, the successful production uses whatever form works best for the number at hand. That approach makes Porgy and Bess a hybrid of both genres, freeing it from the expectations surrounding either. Marin Alsop, BSO’s Music Director, and Sharif opted for a strictly operatic approach that at times seemed slightly at odds to the performers’ stage instincts. That may be a more faithful approach to the original score, but it doesn’t necessarily make for better theater and music. And besides, fealty to original intent goes out the window once you start using microphones, which were used here (albeit as effectively as I have ever experienced, which is to say they were unobtrusive and technically consistent, both of which were something of a marvel).
Alsop led the orchestra through a vibrant performance despite some lackluster brass playing. Still, it was the singers moving about on the edge of the stage and the chorus at the rear that made the performance come alive. I’d like to see the entire ensemble brought back together for more - maybe Rigoletto, Tosca, or even West Side Story next time.
Pictured above: Larry D. Hylton