It’s been nearly forty years since I last got up close and personal with the Gershwins’ masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. Playing the third clarinet book in the pit at the National Arts Centre for the Houston Grand Opera’s two week stint in Ottawa remains one of the highlights of my single-reed performance days. Two seats to my left sat the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s principal clarinet (and for many years my teacher) James Morton. I will never forget the first rehearsal when Jay soared through the fiendishly difficult, jazz-rich opening solo to which HGO’s music director, John DeMain, added his delight to the deafening foot thumping from the orchestra by simply saying, “Yes, I’d been told about you.”
Of course in those days, the mere notion of any microphone reinforcing the onstage singers or below-decks musicians would have been laughed out of the theatre. Why had the abundant talent spent long years and countless hours learning how to project if their considerable artistry were to be filtered through a sound board? Nowadays, everything is electronically “supported,” mixed then sent into all manner of venues to the point where virtually every seat in the house “hears” the same result. From a purely musical standpoint, therefore, why aren’t all tickets the same price?
During this performance in the venerable Richard Rodgers Theatre (which opened as the 46th Street Theatre in 1924), I sampled three locations and didn’t notice any discernible differences.
Thanks to the adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks (musical book) and Diedre Murray (musical score), I never got to re-hear the original’s fabulous orchestration (no clarinet fireworks survived the cuts) or a considerable part of the music (runtime is a slimmed-down 145 minutes), this version has more to say about the material’s theatrical than operatic nature, which worked out to the obvious satisfaction of the audience, most of whom—necessarily given the few opportunities to experience the complete work—wouldn’t know what they were missing. It also meant that the leads had to be far better actors than their classically oriented counterpoints of the ‘70s where so long as the voice did its beguiling work, any physical or dramatic “defects” were instantly forgiven.
Audra McDonald’s portrayal of the drug-dependent, easily bullied Bess was notable for a fully nuanced characterization that made her pathetic choices seem all too real and blessed with a vocal production that soared on demand, putting some of the loudspeakers at risk. Only the oh-so-rare intimately quiet introspection (à la Jesse Norman) and a touch more support prior to the scintillating changes of register could have improved the result. As Porgy, Norm Lewis benefitted from some tinkering downward with the usual upper range and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos’ brisk tempi. But with every lurch across the stage, clinging desperately to his cane and dignity in the face of innumerable heartaches, the Gershwins’ hero had a champion few others could ever hope to achieve.
With abject poverty, drug-related gang bangers and cowardly men still wreaking as much havoc today as in the late ‘30s, the production’s timelessness speaks louder than ever, especially keeping in mind that both of the doomed lovers are crippled: one with the ravages of physical deformity the other with an addiction to “Happy Dust.”
The most consistently excellent voice of the principals flows ever so mightily from Phillip Boykin’s massive chest: here’s a sinister Crown whose art makes the deserved boos during the bows particularly hard to muster. Sporting Life is given a most engaging roll of the dandified dice by the marvellously irrepressible David Allan Grier.
A very large tip of the hat must go to NaTasha Yvette Williams’ tough love, heart-of-gold depiction of Mariah even as Andrea Jones-Sojola’s brief foray as The Strawberry Woman was an Act II highlight that begged for more.
The collective chorus made many joyful noises unto the Lord, yet their combined power overwhelmed the reinforcement frequently blurring their deftly crafted texts. When it was time to kick up their heels (most notably at the picnic) the stage came to invigorating life thanks to Ronald Brown’s ever-inventive choreography. And the design wizards (Riccardo Hernandez, ESosa and Christopher Akerlind) scored on many levels whether seamlessly moving the point of view inside from outside, or conjuring up a hurricane that was on par with Katrina.
Director Diane Paulus kept the pace a-poppin’ or let it pause for momentary reflection with an uncanny sense of thrust and parry. By the time Porgy turns his back on everyone to begin his quest anew because “I’m on My Way” for the only love in his life, everyone wishes him well and feels a bit of his pain. Whether full-fledged grand opera or truncated music theatre, it’s a pleasure to be in the room with that degree of gripping emotion. JWR