Porgy and Bess
By George and Ira Gershwin
Based on the play by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward
San Francisco Opera
June 9-27, 2009
Conducted by John DeMain
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Eric Owens (Porgy), Laquita Mitchell (Bess). Photo: Cory Weaver.
San Francisco Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess” sold out before it even opened. Kind of makes you wonder why it is not performed more often. George and Ira Gershwin’s beloved masterpiece, part Broadway, part opera, first bowed in Boston in 1935. It took another 42 years for it to make it to San Francisco and then it was in a Houston Grand Opera touring production, the first presentation of the work by an American opera company. “Porgy” has been ensconced in American opera houses, where it belongs, ever since and it has come around approximately once a decade since then.
Often called the quintessential American opera, it’s the tale of a mismatched couple, a handicapped beggar and a beautiful party girl. More than that, it is the story of a community, the people of Catfish Row, their hardships, losses and occasional triumphs. These folks literally live on top of one another (in Peter J. Davison’s five-tiered tenement) but, instead of breeding strife, this situation breeds cooperation. It is a community that prays together, grieves together and celebrates together. Everybody knows everybody else’s business and everybody helps everybody else out.
As in any community, however, there are outsiders and renegades. Here they are the dope peddler Sportin’ Life, played to the smarmy hilt by Chauncey Packer, the pugnacious stevedore Crown, always ready for a fight (Lester Lynch), and, at least initially, Bess, herself. Beautifully sung by Laquita Mitchell, she is a sexpot, strung out on Sportin’ Life’s “happy dust” and an affront to the good churchgoing ladies of Catfish Row. As Porgy puts it, “between the God fearing ladies and the god damning men,” the girl doesn’t have a chance. Until Crown kills somebody during a crap game and is forced to flee from the law. Nobody will take Bess in – except Porgy, who has had his eye on her from the start. Their romance tentatively grows and eventually Bess is accepted into the community. The whole thing derails when Crown comes back to claim his woman.
Eric Owens, who sang General Leslie Groves in San Francisco’s world premiere of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” anchors the production with his fine baritone and winning demeanor. Porgy truly loves Bess. She seems to care for him as well but, at heart, Bess is a woman who needs a man and, as it turns out in the end, almost any man will do. Their exquisitely sung duet “Bess, You is My Woman Now” is simply an island in a sea of trouble to come. Other outstanding performances are delivered by Karen Slack as the widow of the murdered Robbins (“My Man’s Gone Now” and “Doctor Jesus”), Angel Blue who brings a clarion soprano to the famed lullaby “Summertime,” and Samantha McElhaney in a brief but winning bit as the Strawberry Lady. Packer does a great Cab Calloway in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and there is real heat between Lynch’s Crown and Mitchell’s Bess.
Director Francesca Zambello has made some changes from traditional stagings. Porgy uses a crutch instead of pushing himself along on a handcart. Bess’ drug addiction is more obvious than in other productions I have seen and, with the setting pushed up from the 30s to the 50s it makes sense to do that. A few cuts have been made – a few more would have improved things. The Act One crap game, while establishing character, seems interminable, as does the scene where the community huddles together during a hurricane. But this production, which was previously presented in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago, has so few flaws that the length (a little over three hours) is something you can live with. If you can manage to get a ticket, that is.