Operatoonity.com review: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Saturday, July 22, 1:30 p.m.
Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York
Music: George Gershwin
Libretto: DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin
5.0 out of 5.0 stars
The 2017 Glimmerglass Festival production of The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Glimmerglass Festival’s production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the quintessential American folk opera, had plenty 0′ everything: splendid singing and dancing, dramatic staging and lighting, stirring and electrifying individual performances. In totality, it was the finest show I’ve seen at the Alice Busch Opera Theater in the last six years.
Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello will often direct one or more productions during each Festival season, and she adapted her Porgy and Bess, conceived for the show’s 75th anniversary in 2010, for the Glimmerglass stage. It was an inspired, masterly effort–her best directorial effort to date at Glimmerglass. While I can’t say the opera’s book is the strongest I’ve ever experienced–the show itself is like a string of musical sketches set in Catfish Row, a shanty town along the coast of South Carolina, rather than a deeply developed story–the music is the undisputed soul of this work.
Early tableau from Glimmerglass Festival’s The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” featuring Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy | photo by Karli Cadel
The music is filled with leitmotifs drawn from all annals of American music (spirituals, Tin Pan Alley, folk music), threading the sketches and the characters together. We all can tick off the hit parade of songs from Porgy and Bess: “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” a completely satisfying exercise and one of the reasons why the show is sold out for the rest of the season. Since Gershwin’s music drives the show, I’ll let it drive this review as well.
Only moments in, the audience is treated to the signature aria “Summertime,” a lullaby capably sung by Clara, portrayed by soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb. What I liked most about Adeeb’s interpretation was that it sounded like a lullaby, not an operatic aria sung with a prop baby in her arms. She delivered a total performance as Clara–sympathetic and nuanced.
Meroë Khalia Adeeb singing “Summertime” as Clara | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The talented ensemble, also the strongest I can remember at the Festival, introduces the tensions and issues facing the coastal tenement through one blockbuster number after another. “Roll them Bones” sung by the men of Catfish Row featuring Frederick Ballentine as Sporting Life and “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” sung by Clara’s husband Jake played by Justin Austin were expertly sung and performed, to a person, in each note and through cleverly choreographed movement.
Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life (right) with members of the ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
I sincerely wish I had a photo to share from “A Woman is a Sometime Thing,” but there was none available. If you want to enjoy a fraction of the quality and flavor of that sensational number, you can watch a comparable version on YouTube from Zambello’s WNO production from 2010:
Porgy was evocatively and powerfully sung and acted by South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana. Because Porgy is crippled, the townsfolk are protective of him, yet he never takes advantage of their sympathy. I have seen Ngqungwana perform in his more formative days at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where he received arguably the finest operatic training in the world. He imbued the role of Porgy with the same qualities he became known for years ago with AVA: sincerity, strength, and vulnerability. It was a tour de force performance for him. From “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” he gave each the perfect tone from playful to deeply passionate. Bravo, Musa! And grazie, Glimmerglass, for giving his gifts such a stellar, comprehensive platform.
Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We are introduced to Bess sung by soprano Talise Trevigne in the number “Happy Dust.” Bess may be a once in a lifetime role within the common opera repertory. Not even Violetta or Manon has so many highs and lows, has so many facets to her character. Trevigne is exotic and untamed as Bess, without Porgy in her life. The audience sincerely believes her transformation to a loved and lovable decent woman and her beautifully rendered “I Loves You, Porgy” because Porgy loves her unconditionally.
Talise Trevigne as Bess | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The show was filled to the fly space with standout performers. As Serena the widow, Young Artist Simone Z. Paulwell’s soprano pipes blew the rafters off the theater in “My Man’s Gone Now”. What a sparkling future this young woman has!
Simone Z. Paulwell as Serena, the widow | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Illinois Baritone Norman Garrett inhabited the role of Crown, a larger-than-life villain, a character so evil you love to hate him. And in this show he gives the audience so many opportunities to revile him. Can’t be an easy role to play with overdoing it, but Garrett was sheerly and sincerely menacing.
Norman Garrett as Crown | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Even smaller roles such as Peter sung by Edward Graves and cameo roles such as Strawberry Woman sung by Jasmin White and Crab Man sung by Chaz’men Williams-Aliwere glittering, no, expert turns in this show–all performed by Young Artists.
L to R: Piers Shannon as Scipio and Edward Graves as Peter
The best individual performance–hands down–goes to Frederick Ballantine as the devilishly sexy, almost otherwordly sinister Sportin’ Life, an alumnus of the Young Artists Program at Glimmerglass. He can sing, he can dance, and he commands the stage. I hope you give this young man a lead in an upcoming production (thinking Pippin here, Ms. Zambello). There were so many outstanding performances in this show, and Ballantine topped them all. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” brought the house down.
Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life with members of the ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Last but certainly not least, the ensemble in this show is the rocket fuel that propels the show’s plot and energy, coralled the audience’s enthusiasm, and made this the strongest production ever, in scene after scene after scene. Bravi to all.
The fabulous ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
A picnic on Kittiwah Island showcased the talented ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
During one of the many ancillary events–a set talk–one of the lead technicians mentioned that the performers need monitors to hear the orchestra. I am certain it is to the conductor’s credit that musical numbers involving the entire ensemble were the blockbusters. But one note to Maestro John DeMain. The orchestra was too loud during Porgy and Bess’s famous duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”. The only disappointing moment in this production. Even the world’s best singers can’t outsing an orchestra during a love ballad.
As I mentioned earlier, this production is sold out. But you can enjoy the talented performers in other shows and venues this summer such as the Stars Night out events in the pavilion.
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Plenty of Glimmerglass Festival remains through the end of August. See the Festival Calendar for more details.