Porgy and Bess at SFO

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has a really interesting history.  It was always intended as a “grand opera”; pretty much the first American one.  It was written for the Metropolitan Opera but not performed there until 1985 and between it’s Boston debut in 1935 and a production in Houston in 1976 it was virtually always performed in a much cut edition designed for Broadway.  In fact by the time of the Houston production it was being done much at all; being seen as dated and dealing with issues of race that were particularly highly charged in Civil Rights Era America.  It took a bold, young Deneral Manager, David Gockley, and a Gershwin enthusiast, John DeMain, to recreate an opera rather than a musical.  It’s been following them round ever since and so, not very surprisingly, Gockley, now in charge in San Francisco, chose to stage it there last year in a new production by Francesca Zambello with DeMain conducting.

1.porgyZambello’s production is apparently updated to the 1950s though I’m not really sure how one is supposed to tell and I don’t think it makes any difference.  There’s a unit, multilevel set, that works effectively enough and it’s all pretty literal and straightforward.  That said, the details are worked through pretty carefully.  There’s a pretty good lighting plot which is very effective in the storm scene and the “reconciliation” between Sportin’ Life and Bess.  The fight scenes are well choreographed and the occasional incursions of “white folks” are imbued with a sense of menace.

2.funeralIt’s still essentially straightforward though so much turns on the performances which are really very good.  There’s some luxury casting here.  The Porgy is Eric Owens who is his usual excellent self.  He and Zambello have obviously put a lot of work into creating a Porgy who is strong, vulnerable, complex and, above all, elicits our sympathy the whole time.  He’s paired up with Laquita Mitchell as Bess.  She can sing, she can move and she is very sexy.  Which is pretty much what Bess needs to be.  She also does “stoned slut” remarkably well!  Lester Lynch makes a suitably menacing Crown.  I’ve rated him pretty highly since I saw his Rigoletto and he doesn’t disappoint here.  There’s some gorgeous singing too from Angel Blue (Summertime is gorgeous) and Eric Greene as Clara and Jake.  Chauncey Parker provides a spirited, maybe even over the top, portrayal of Sportin’ Life; rather reminding me of Danny John-Jules’ Cat from Red Dwarf.  So, all the African American characters are played by African Americans and the whites, as it happens, by whites.  I wonder whether there’s any other work in the repertoire that would still be cast racially?  Not saying it’s wrong but it’s interesting.  The chorus, FWIW, is the usual multiracial SFO Chorus (and they are very good).  Splendid playing too from the SFO Orchestra.

3.fightFrank Zamacona directs the video.  It’s clean and unfussy and captures everything pretty well, even when the stage is very busy, and it often is.  The picture and sound (DTS 5.1) quality on DVD are very good but there’s also a true HD Blu-ray available which ought to be even better.  There is about half an hour of quite interesting interview footage with cast members, Zambello, Gockley and DeMain.  The booklet has an essay by Gockley, a detailed track listing and a synopsis.  Subtitle options are English, French, German, Chinese and Korean.

4.bess&sportinlifeThe only video competition to this recording is a 1989 Glyndebourne version which is definitely showing its age.  With a fine cast and state of the art recording this SFO version is a clear first choice.


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