Glimmerglass Festival, Alice Busch Theater, Cooperstown, NY; August 13, 2017—Deep in operatic lore is the story of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The work is through-composed and huge in scale, and Gershwin opted to have it performed in a Broadway theater despite interest at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. His thinking was that not only could the Met not offer an all-black cast, but that it would receive only a handful of performances at the Met in contrast to a long run in a musical theater. But he had to compromise: many numbers had to be cut even from the premiere in Boston in 1935 before it moved to Broadway (no Porgy could sing so much music eight performances a week!). On Broadway it achieved 124 performances: considered a flop in its day.
For years it was excerpted and mauled in productions—huge cuts, reduced/altered orchestration, etc. But in 1976 Houston Grand Opera’s music director John DeMain led a version that was glorious in its adhesion to the original, and since then that version is considered the purest, most operatic form it has ever been given. Gershwin himself saw it as an opera—it was often referred to as a “musical”—but Gershwin defended its “symphonic music to unify entire scenes” and pointed out that “Carmen is almost a collection of song hits” as well.
The Glimmerglass Festival’s Porgy and Bess, led again by John DeMain, was the jewel in the crown in this summer’s festival. Francesca Zambello’s direction was thoroughly honest and humanely insightful: From the rise of the curtain onto Catfish Row, a series of two stories of corrugated, decrepit dwellings (designed by Peter Davison), the stage was populated by real people—not a stand-still-and-sing chorus. The set was reminiscent of a prison cell—a fine metaphor for the closed-off lives on Catfish Row.
Bustling about, doing laundry, cuddling a baby, interacting, the lack of stagey-ness continued through the opera. The audience felt part of it – concentrating on Clara’s lullaby “Summertime” (gorgeously sung by Meroe Khalia Adeeb, crowned by a stunning pianissimo high B-natural) stage center but spotting the men playing dice close by and the women working on the two-tiered set.
The dreadful, complex relationship between Bess and Crown came to a boiling point with a rape scene on Kittiwah Island that left the audience agape. And Porgy was, rightfully, the loving center of the opera’s heart. Both directorially and scenically, only Kittiwah Island, here a wrecked amusement park, confused and disappointed.
More than half of the large cast (21 soloists) was from the Glimmerglass Young Artist Program, and they are a masterful crowd. Simone Z. Paulwell’s Serena overwhelmed in “My man’s gone now” (opera’s greatest lament since Dido’s in Purcell’s opera); Justin Austin’s Jake shone in his big number, “A woman is a sometime thing”; and the others were superb in solos and in the many impressive ensembles.
Regarding the more seasoned performers, from the glorious bass-baritone of Musa Mgqungwana of Porgy, with personality to burn; to Talise Trevigne’s too-sexy-for-her-own-good, morally confused Bess, sung with heart and soul and a soaring soprano; to the spectacularly athletic tenor of Frederick Ballentine’s Sportin’ Life, just as serpentine as he should be; to Norman Garrett’s huge, bullying Crown, there was not a weak link.
And John DeMain’s understanding of the score—the jazzy rhythms and dissonances, the easy swing of some numbers, the gospel sway of others—all underpinned by the huge and brilliant Festival Orchestra, proved to the world that “Porgy…” is, so far, America’s masterpiece opera.