By John W. Lambert
CHARLESTON, S.C. – Producing Porgy and Bess at the Spoleto Festival USA had been discussed for years, but it was not until May 27, in the festival’s 40th anniversary season, that this classic expression of Americana was finally staged here. The many reasons for the delay need hardly detain us, for the opera, as ultimately given in the splendidly renovated performance hall of the Gaillard Center, was a triumph that surely made the wait worthwhile for the hundreds of people who were part of the production effort and the thousands who will witness it through June 12.
The Holy City, as Charleston is known, is of course the setting of the book (by DuBose Heyward) and the play based thereon (by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) and then the opera, based in turn on that play, by George and Ira Gershwin. Porgy was modeled on a real person, according to editor Harlan Greene’s commendable book Porgy & Bess: A Charleston Story, published to coincide with the festival’s presentation. Catfish Row was a real place, too, originally named Cabbage Row. Visitors to Charleston can see it and the houses associated with the creation of what many consider to be America’s finest opera.
As heard on June 1, in the company of a full house including music critics from around North America convened for their annual meeting, it was clear that it is a very great opera, indeed – a masterwork that rewards repeated hearings and viewings in myriad incarnations. In Charleston, the sets by Carolyn Mraz and costumes by Annie Simon, working under the supervision of Charleston’s own visual designer Jonathan Green, represented a significant bit of urban renewal when contrasted with the more typical down-and-out presentations of the characters and their environment.
The décor was gradually enhanced as the show progressed, with more and more artwork added to the sets, making the final scenes riots of color that complemented the music and the drama in new and exciting ways. Traditionalists may have been less pleased. There were some idiosyncrasies, among which the call for the goat at the very end in particular jarred when a lavishly decorated wheelchair appeared instead.
In addition, the set offered images of several of Charleston’s most famous church steeples, including one that resembled nearby “Mother Emanuel,” scene of the 2015 massacre.
So the opera looked especially fresh and fine and sounded wonderful, particularly in orchestral and choral terms. There was magic in the orchestra, performing what we were told was the original orchestration (portions of which were preserved on a pair of Decca 78 rpm albums from 1940 and ’42). It was mostly complete; the major omission was “The Buzzard Song.”
The hall’s acoustics are quite fine, and the sound from the pit was rich, full, and admirably detailed and clear, with constant instrumental delights throughout the evening. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra consists of some of America’s finest young musicians; they sounded thoroughly professional under the exemplary leadership of British conductor Stefan Asbury, who had effectively crawled into the skin of the piece for these, his first performances of Porgy. The show moved well, and the people on stage were handsomely animated, thanks to director David Herskovits.
The chorus consisted of the 22-voice concert choir from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., augmented by some exceptional singers from the surrounding area. Working under chorus master Duane Davis, the massed choir was integral to the performance, demonstrating mastery of the many choral portions – for men alone, for women, and as a full ensemble – and projecting with the utmost precision and emphasis throughout the evening. The work of these singers underscored the importance of the chorus as full-fledged characters, much as the choruses in great Russian operas play roles comparable to the solo singers.
The principals were commendable as well, but at the performance under discussion the men generally projected better than the women. Porgy was admirably sung and acted with conviction by Verdi baritone Lester Lynch. As Crown, baritone Eric Greene combined musical distinction with strong physical presence in a challenging role. Baritone Sidney Outlaw brought Jake to vivid life, vocally and dramatically. And tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, the Sportin’ Life, was so slick and smooth he could have enticed lifelong teetotalers to fall from the wagon (or, if you prefer, cart). The gents were generally comprehensible, with few lines failing to reach the rear of the substantial auditorium; supertitles would, however, have been helpful at points of significant evolution of the plot, beyond the familiar arias.
As Bess, soprano Alyson Cambridge proved dramatically convincing and vocally adept in her richly varied role. Maria was powerfully and often radiantly sung by soprano Lisa Daltirus. Soprano Courtney Johnson scored a big success as Clara, who of course gets first dibs on “Summertime,” one of the opera’s biggest hits. Rounding out the principals on the female side was Indra Thomas, whose portrayal of Serena was often deeply moving.
The women were generally less successful in hurling their lines deep into the hall; again, supertitles would have been helpful – along with improved diction, some of the time, from some of the solo artists.
It would be remiss to overlook the stellar work of pianist Tuffus Zimbabwe (of Saturday Night Live fame) in the Jasbo Brown portion of the introduction and the artists who provided the amazing street cries: Honey Man Walker J. Jackson, Strawberry Woman Shanta L. Jackson, and Crab Man Tamar Greene.
Just as the drama worked its magic in new ways, the music emerged with great energy, verve, and freshness. It may have taken Spoleto a while to get around to it, but this Porgy and Bess will doubtless linger long in the memories of those who performed it — and witnessed it — in Porgy’s home town.
While Porgy and Bess was sold out almost immediately after tickets were offered to the public, the festival website urges prospective patrons to call the box office at (843) 579-3100 for ticket availability for performances on June 8 and 12.
John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.