Review: Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera, June 21, 2009

For the second time in seven months, this website is reviewing a performance of the Zambello production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”. The production, which generates enthusiasm and sold out performances in every city in which it has shown, was reviewed in its Lyric Opera performances in Chicago last November, less than two weeks after one of Chicago’s African-American residents received an invitation by the American people to move his residence to the White House in Washington, DC. The Chicago performance is detailed in The Zambello “Porgy and Bess” An Historic Success at Chicago’s Lyric – November 18, 2008

The Zambello production, which has appeared also in Washington DC, Houston and Los Angeles, is the current and most successful permutation of a collaboration between Zambello, Conductor John DeMain and former Houston Grand Opera General Director David Gockley. Their intent was to present this famous work in its original “operatic” version as intended by Gershwin. With Gockley’s assumption of the General Manager duties at the San Francisco Opera in 2006, the  scheduling of “Porgy” as part of a San Francisco Opera main season was an early priority.

[Below: the community of Catfish Row; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

One of the extraordinary factors that goes into any American performance of “Porgy and Bess” is George Gershwin’s dictate that any performances of the work use an African-American cast. Although Gockley has worked closely with the Gershwins’ family foundation that still has the power to license performances and to enforce the composer’s will, he has expressed his hope that U. S. companies will in time be permitted to cast the works with the ability to choose artists from among the world’s greatest singers, without attention to the singers’ origin or ancestry.

Even so, the cast that Gockley invited to San Francisco was as talented as one could imagine any operatic management assembling. All of the principal artists are accomplished in the full operatic repertory. The Porgy, Eric Owens, performs the Mozart basso roles, and standard repertory opera from Bellini to Richard Strauss. The Bess, Laquita Mitchell, recently performed such roles as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.

The Crown, Lester Lynch, performs the major Verdi baritone roles, and will soon be singing Nottingham in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” at Minnesota Opera. (See: In Quest of Donizetti – A 2009-10 Update.)

Chauncey Packer, the Sporting Life, sings Tamino in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and the title role in Massenet’s “Werther”.  The remaining cast members collectively have considerable experience in a wide-ranging operatic repertory.

Nor is this a case of the San Francisco Opera filling the roles with voices that seem inappropriate for the popular showpieces – i.e., whose voices sound too “operatic” to “deliver” a standard on the Broadway stage. It is the succession of “hit songs” that resulted in the work, shorn of its “classical music” elements, being shown in abridged versions for four decades, as if it were intentionally composed to be a Broadway musical.

As an example, Owens, who was a convincing Re di Scozia in Handel’s “Ariodante” at San Francisco Opera (see the review in June 2008 archives) performed the familiar “I got plenty o’ nuttin”  with the swagger of a Broadway headliner, and the more classical and vocally difficult “Buzzard keep on flyin’ over, take along yo’ shadow” with equal distinction.

[Below: Porgy (Eric Owens) comforts Bess (Laquita Mitchell); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Notes on the Performance

Conductor DeMain led the rousing orchestral introduction with its complex harmonies. We were instantly transported to the community of Catfish Row – in Peter J. Davison sets, a rusting, two-level, vertical community. On this first day of Summer 2009, the Clara, Angel Blue, sang a mellifluous “Summertime”, the lullaby that is the opera’s most famous “number”.

Clara’s husband, Jake (Eric Greene), has responsibility for the first choreographed “show-stopper” of the opera, Jake’s humorous ballad to his infant son, “A Woman is a Sometime Thing”. Nicely sung, and brilliantly staged in  Zambello’s production (Denni Sayers is the choreographer for San Francisco Opera performances, with Packer’s Sporting Life accompanying the merriment with lively dance steps), it is a precursor to the dark incidents that follow.

The community’s energy is reflected in what seems to be a friendly crap game, but a game that begins the opera’s central storyline, with far-reaching consequences, not all known at the opera’s end. Fatal rolls of the dice lead to the death of Robbins (Michael Austin) and eventually to that of his killer, Crown, two of four deaths of principal characters that will occur in this opera.

Austin, who has sung leading Verdi and Puccini roles throughout the world, was vocally impressive in the brief but physically demanding role (he is killed aggressively by Crown in a savage fight), displaying the depth of talent of the “Porgy” cast.

It is the consequences of the crap game that will lead Bess, in the opera’s final act, to conclude that both men – Crown and Porgy – that have protected her in the past are lost to her forever.  The manipulative Sporting Life, whose “happy dust” and whose entrepreneurial interest in the prostitution trade will probably prove to be even more destructive than Crown’s violence, will convince her to leave with him.

If the death of Robbins flows out of the community men’s recreational interests, it is Catfish Row’s principal economic activity – fishing around South Carolina’s barrier islands – from which another story arc is formed. Jake’s aspirations for the upward mobility of his infant son lead him to risk his life for potential monetary gain during the dangerous hurricane season.

It is Jake who first feels the power of Porgy’s grip, that will later strangle Crown. It is to Jake, after all, that Porgy sings that “nuttin’s plenty”. But Jake’s determination to work hard against all odds, including rough seas, leads to the deaths of Jake and Clara, one of all of opera’s most attractive couples.

[Below: Jake (Eric Greene) with his wife Clara (Angel Blue) plan for the future of their infant son; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Their tragic end is beautifully portrayed in Zambello’s vivid pantomime of Clara trying to reach for Jake on his capsized boat during the hurricane, during which the remainder of the ensemble sings at the footlights. (The assembly at the footlights is a brilliant theatrical device, always effectively utilized in the past by stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Adding the elevated pantomime just beyond it is a stroke of Zambello genius.)

If one explores the commentary and debate over this work from each of the seven decades since the work’s premiere, one can experience a kaleidoscope of changing attitudes to the subject matter. The original attraction of the character of Porgy, first to Edwin DuBose Heyward, the author of the original story, then to George and Ira Gershwin, was the idea, seldom explored in the 1920s, that a crippled beggar living in a community whose elders had been slaves, could be portrayed as dignified, passionate and interesting.  In the 1930s, this seemed to take verismo much lower in the class structure than such works as Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”.

In this millenium, we, of course, have experienced what previous decades may not have imagined, and, as a result of our experiences can better appreciate Catfish Row’s sociology. Porgy may appear to the coroner and other white folks to be groveling for pennies, but at the Saucer Ceremony dealing with the consequences of Robbins’ death, it is Porgy that assumes the role of community leader, exhorting others to fill the saucer.

His counterpart community leaders are two powerful women – Maria, sung by Alteouise deVaughn, and the widow Serena Robbins, played by Karen Slack. And perhaps one of the opera’s less famous pieces in the opera is its most powerful – the trio at opera’s end between Porgy, Maria and Serena, when Porgy sings “My Bess, I want her now”.

The role of Maria is an extraordinary one, that in addition to a more traditional operatic writing style as in that final trio, (worthy of comparison with the great trios of Richard Strauss), contains an exhortation to Sporting Life not to try to sell any heroin in the vicinity of her restaurant. The text is sung rhythmically as if spoken – a bravura piece nicely performed by deVaughn.

(One wonders if John Williams in scoring the film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” intended homage to the descending scales in Sporting Life’s “happy dust” leitmotiv when he devised the similarly orchestrated theme of descending scales for the swarming spiders.)

[Below: Maria (Alteouise deVaughn) forbids Sporting Life (Chauncey Packer) from selling heroin anywhere near her establishment; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now” earned Karen Slack the first sustained audience ovation of the performance, followed by a showstopper for Bess – “Oh, the train is at the station” with its refrain “We’re leavin’ for the Promised Land”. And in the wondrous succession of melodies and set pieces, one hears the Buzzard Song and the famous and affecting duet between Bess and Porgy “Bess, you is my woman now”.

Yet another showstopper – the cakewalk “Oh, I can’t  sit down” gave us the opportunity to experience the athleticism and acrobatic and dancing skills of the Mingo, Michael Bragg, who left a strong impression in this deliciously attractive comprimario role.

Strutting to the music of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, augmented by banjo, saxophone and xylophone, Bragg and his colleagues, in their excitement preparing for the Kitiwah picnic, presented one the last of the truly lighthearted moments before darker incidents in Catfish Row and Kitiwah remind us of Mingo’s first words at the opera’s beginning – “Oh, nobody knows when the Lawd is goin’ to call”.

Although Davison constructed a unit set, it transforms effectively from Catfish Row to the landing at Kitiwah Island, with the ruins of an abandoned amusement park visible at stage left. Zambello portrays the tension between the revivalist Baptist faction of the community, led by Serena, and Sporting Life’s seductions.

[ Below: the sets for the picnic on Kitiwah Island; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Gershwin underscores the tension between salvation and seduction by making Sporting Life’s Scriptural critique so appealing to the opera’s audience (and Zambello, who uses Kitiwah as the site for adult baptisms, lets us know that some of the Catfish Row citizens are open to Sporting Life’s ideas). Sporting Life is probably grand opera’s most vivid personification of “sex, drugs and rock and roll”, and the San Francisco audience showed its delight with spirited applause.

[Below: Sporting Life (Chauncey Packer) expresses his doubts about the authority of the Scriptures; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The appearance of Crown at Kitiwah is as menacing as that of Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the bull-ring – an outlaw who wants a woman back in his possession who has moved on to a new relationship. Here the result is rape, rather than murder. Having admired Lester Lynch’s chillingly dramatic performance as Crown in both Chicago and San Francisco, I look forward to hearing him in the future in his Donizetti and Verdi roles.

[Below: Crown (Lester Lynch) overpowers Bess (Laquita Mitchell); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Famous features of “Porgy and Bess” are the two “Doctor Jesus” episodes. For these, Conductor DeMain puts his baton down and stands motionless as the principals, to the accompaniment of cellos and violas and a few other instruments,  go through extended passages in which they appear to be improvising the spiritual singing of the African-American churches. Gershwin’s notes are precise but the bars that measure time do not exist for those passages.

Karen Slack was last seen at San Francisco Opera three years earlier singing (in Russian) Tchaikovsky’s enchanting duets in his “Orleanskaya Dyeva” with Mischa Didyk as the Dauphin and Slack as Agnes Sorel (See this website’s review in the August, 2006 archives.) As with the other cast members, Slack’s accomplishments throughout the operatic repertory makes her searing performance as Serena especially significant.

[Below: Serena (Karen Slack) calls on the healing power of Doctor Jesus; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

In the smaller roles, several artists should be noted. Calvin Lee as Peter and Samantha McElhaney as the Strawberry Woman deserve special praise. San Francisco Opera chorister Frederick Matthews, who himself played Jake in a company of “Porgy” that toured Europe, was notable as Nelson. (For a previous interview with Matthews, see: A Year in the Life of an S. F. Opera Chorister – An Interview with Frederick Matthews.)

Even in a memorable cast, with an especially fine performance by Laquita Mitchell, the standout performer was Eric Owens as Porgy. He presented a fully conceived Porgy, effectively sung and persuasively dramatic.

[Below: Eric Owens is Porgy; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Zambello’s Assistant Producer in San Francisco was her long-time colleague Garnett Bruce. Zambello’s conceptualization of the work, with Davison’s sets, should be regarded as the authoritative presentation of this most popular of 20th century American operas.