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GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess

spacer Mitchell, Slack, Blue; Packer, Lynch, Owens; San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Demain. Production: Zambello. EuroArts 2059634 (Blu-Ray) or 2059638 (DVD), 158 mins. (0pera), 29 mins. (bonus), subtitled


Porgy and Bess is indisputably a great work, but it can't be an easy assignment for a stage director. Its dramaturgical limitations remind us time and again that Gershwin was not an experienced hand at opera. In its first half especially — before the Porgy–Bess–Crown triangle takes hold — the piece can seem to lurch from one hit tune to the next without any particular dramatic context.

Francesca Zambello certainly hasn't found a solution to the problem in this production, which originated at Washington National Opera in 2005 and is here seen in a June 2009 San Francisco Opera mounting. Even though Peter J. Davison's sets are semi-abstract (his Catfish Row looks like an abandoned, broken-walled warehouse), the mode of the stage action is quasi-naturalistic, with fidgety bits of business that continually diffuse the dramatic tension. The chorus, milling around onstage for much of the opera, often seems like a bunch of people waiting for a performance of Porgy and Bess to happen. The close of the first scene, when Bess seeks refuge in Porgy's shack, should be the drama's first great defining moment. But Zambello sabotages it by using the emotion-drenched orchestral postlude as underscoring to a scene change. 

Perhaps something was lost when the production moved from the Kennedy Center to the larger War Memorial Opera House, but the proceedings throughout have a shouted-to-the-rafters quality that continually subverts any suspension of disbelief. Little is suggested; much is indicated. Bess bumps and grinds during the poker game, and Crown adds a pelvic thrust to "A Red-Headed Woman," as if to let us know that sex is indeed a part of the work's equation. And the shuckin' and jivin' that Zambello seems to encourage at every turn not only further diffuses the dramatic focus; it courts the racist stereotypes that a present-day Porgy would do well to avoid. 

It's telling that the performance most comes together as a work of music theater in its final scene, with Porgy's double aria "Oh Bess, Oh Where's My Bess"/"Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way." Small wonder: Porgy here is Eric Owens, bringing to the assignment the outsize presence and the vulnerability — not to mention the stupendous voice — that are so much a part of his makeup. He alone delivers the pathos that should so powerfully dominate this opera. 

His colleagues aren't nearly on his level. Laquita Mitchell, slightly zaftig and extraordinarily pretty, certainly looks like a Bess. But her voice is in uncertain control. Great moments, such as Bess's recitative "It's like this, Crown," lose their impact simply because Mitchell has so much trouble navigating the vocal line. Lester Lynch sings strongly as Crown, but he projects little sexual danger; when he shows up bare-chested in the hurricane scene, the six-pack painted on his belly epitomizes the limitations of his performance. 

Karen Slack's Serena, in "My Man's Gone Now," adds sobs and moans to a vocal line that unadorned can present a devastating expression of grief. Angel Blue, as Clara, belts out "Summertime" in tones unlikely to lull her baby to sleep. Chauncey Parker is a Sporting Life intent more on display than on insinuation; his performance is a reminder that Gershwin conceived the role within a vaudeville tradition that has long since vanished. Conductor John DeMain — who led a classic 1976 recording of Porgy and Bess, brimming with vitality — here seems to have lost his enthusiasm for the piece. This dispiriting release could well evoke a similar response in the viewer. spacer


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