Review: Glimmerglass Festival “Porgy and Bess”: Ngqungwana, Trevigne Lead Strong Cast for New Zambello Production – July 13, 2017

The Glimmerglass Festival presented a brilliantly sung production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”. The musical performance was presided over by the eminent Maestro John DeMain, a leading authority on the American musical and American opera.

Director Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass Festival’s Artistic and General Director, a tireless advocate for the work, who created its most significant previous production, re-conceptualized the work in a stunningly effective new production.

Musa Ngqungwana’s Porgy

South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana was an insightful Porgy with an impressive command of the role’s vocal and dramatic demands.

The vocal demands range from such showpieces as the lyrically witty I’ve Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, the intense emotion of the Buzzard Song, the arresting duets with Bess, I Loves You Porgy and the anthem I’m On My Way. The physical demands of the role include an aggressive fight to the death with Crown, and the constant use of a crutch for mobility while dragging his left foot.

Coached in the Gullah accent of South Carolina Coastal African-American populations [see my interview at Rising Stars: An Interview with Musa Ngqungwana], Ngqungwana presented a theatrically convincing portrait of an iconic character.

[Below: Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Ngqungwana’s indelible portraits of Gershwin’s Porgy, and of Jake Heggie’s South Sea Island harpoonist Queequeg [Review: Maestro Conlon Captains Another Successful Launch for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2015] should assure Ngqungwana an important operatic career.

Additionally, Ngqungwana has displayed an affinity for a wide-ranging operatic repertory.  In the previous Glimmerglass Festival’s presentation of a Rossini rarity, he exhibited his bel canto skills [See Review: Gilmore, Angelini, Ngqungwana Take Flight in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 7, 2016.] Ngqungwana is a graduate of Philadelphia’s Academy of the Vocal Arts that emphasizes classical training for opera.

Talise Trevigne’s Bess

California soprano Talise Trevigne was an affecting Bess, engendering audience sympathy for an emotionally unstable personality. Gershwin has showered on Bess a wealth of melodies that Trevigne performed elegantly – a beautifully controlled, vocally expressive soprano that suggested that, had the course of hard luck events gone differently, Trevigne’s Bess might have summoned the strength to overcome her demons.

Her duet I Loves You Porgy was affectionately performed with Ngqungwana’s Porgy and the heartbreaking What’s You Want Wid Bess was plaintively sung to Garrett’s Crown. (Bess even gets a full verse of Summertime in its second reprise.)

[Below: Talise Trevigne as Bess; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Trevigne is a specialist in contemporary music. I have reported on Trevigne’s distinguished performances in the world premieres of operas by Heggie and Little [See World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010 and World Premiere Review: “JFK”, a Fort Worth Fantasy – April 23, 2016 and World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Celestial Transformation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Houston Grand Opera, December 2, 2016.

Norman Garrett’s Crown and Frederick Ballentine’s Sportin’ Life

Illinois baritone Norman Garrett was Crown, the more sinister of the opera’s two villains. Garrett, a physically imposing Crown, evoked the uncontrolled machismo of the man whom Bess tries to leave.

Garrett gave a robust vocal performance, his song Red-Headed Woman providing a bit of respite from Crown’s otherwise unrelenting bad boy persona.

[Below: Crown (Norman Garrett, right) confronts Bess (Talise Trevigne, left); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.] 

Virginia tenor Frederick Ballentine, who last season was a Glimmerglass Festival Young Artist, was an athletic Sportin’ Life, jumping high in a physical encounter with Ngqungwana’s Porgy.

Ira Gershwin’s sophisticated lyrics to Sportin’ Life’s hit song It Ain’t Necessarily So seem to soften the image of this sleazy drug dealer. Yet, this is the character who intends to entrap Bess in a life of drug abuse and prostitution in New York, a hellish prospect to which the addicted Bess ultimately succumbs.

[Below: Sportin Life (Frederick Ballentine, right) has reasons why he wants Bess (Talise Trevigne, left) to accompany him to New York City; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Meroë Khalia Adeeb’s Clara, Justin Austin’s Jake and Simone Z. Paulwell’s Serena

California soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb was a bright-voiced Clara, who sings the first two appearances of Summertime – the opera’s most famous aria. This is the aria that sets the mood for the opera, so it is an important task for whomever is cast in this comprimario role. Adeeb’s distinguished performance of Summertime was affecting and instantly drew the audience into the drama.

[Below: Clara (Meroë Khalia Adeeb) holds her baby as Catfish Row women in the background bind a quilt; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Adeeb’s Clara and Clara’s husband Jake are the opera’s appealing but ill-fated couple whose lives a hurricane destroys.

The role of Jake was nicely sung and acted by Justin Austin (from Stuttgart, Germany). Austin convincingly portrayed the ambitious, upwardly mobile character, especially through his two big arias A woman is a sometime thing and It takes a long pull to get there.

[Below: Jake (Stephen Austin, far left) prepares his fishing boat, Seagull, for what will turn out to be a fatal voyage; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

One of the opera’s greatest arias is My Man’s Gone Now, which expresses Serena Robbins’ deep grief at the fund-raising “saucer ceremony” following the unexpected death of her husband. District of Columbia’s soprano Simone Z. Paulwell’s performance was extraordinarily powerful.

[Below: Serena (Simone Z. Paulwell, center) sings of her grief at the saucer ceremony for her late husband’s burial; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Three of the opera’s eight principal roles were successfully entrusted to 2017 Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists – Paulwell’s Serena, Adeeb’s Clara and Austin’s Jake. This would be a significant achievement for any opera company with a Young Artists program.

The  Glimmerglass Young Artists Program’s success in providing these three major roles not only confirms the Glimmerglass Festival’s impressive ability to recruit the voices needed for its ambitious season, but suggests to me that there is a deep talent pool from which American opera companies recruit.

 Judith Skinner’s Maria

In a richly talented cast for “Porgy”, New York contralto Judith Skinner deserves special praise. Skinner has taken on the role of Maria, a larger than life character role requiring comic timing and “rap”-like patter.  Skinner is mesmerizing in the role of Maria,  as she is as Aunt Eller in the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” which she also performs – often on back-to-back evenings.

[Below: Judith Skinner as Maria; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Maestro John DeMain and the Musical Performance

Ohio conductor John DeMain is so important to the performance history of the American musical and American opera, sung by operatic voices, that it is difficult to imagine how American opera would have evolved without him.

I first experienced one of DeMain’s projects in 1977 when his Houston Grand Opera production of “Porgy and Bess” was presented by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House. DeMain’s HGO production was the first full production of Gershwin’s work as an opera in the form that Gershwin intended.

[Below: Porgy (Musa Ngqungwana, left) joins a prayer meeting convened to help Bess (Talise Trevigne, in bed) recover; edited image, based on a Carrington Spires photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Subsequently DeMain teamed with Francesca Zambello for productions of “Porgy” that I reviewed in Chicago and San Francisco (see below), as well as Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” in those two cities. [See Team Zambello Shows off “Show Boat” to Chicago’s Lyric Opera – March 14, 2012 and Aboard San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat”: Showy Cast, Abundant Show-stoppers – June 1, 2014.]

At previous Glimmerglass Festivals, DeMain has conducted several Broadway musicals, including Willson’s “The Music Man” [Glimmerglass Festival’s Annual Salute to Broadway: Dwayne Croft in Vibrant, Affecting “Music Man” – July 24, 2012], Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” [Eric Owens is Vocally Powerful, Dramatic and Emotional in Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 22, 2012] and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” [Review: Greer Grimsley Stars in Christopher Alden’s Staging of “Sweeney Todd” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 4, 2016].

[Below: A terrified Bess (Talise Trevigne, standing) clutches Porgy (Musa Ngqungwana, center, kneeling) who has just killed Crown (Norman Garrett, on ground); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

“Porgy” is the most-performed American opera in history. The second most-performed American opera, Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”, also has greatly benefited by DeMain’s advocacy for that work as well. [See Opera Pacific’s Brilliant “Susannah” – May 14, 2008  and Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014.]

[Below: the community of Catfish Row prays for the souls of the departed Jake (Justin Austin, above left) and the departed Clara (Meroë Khalia Adeeb, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

The large cast also included such Young Artists as Oklahoma’s Steven D. Myles as Mingo, California’s Chaz’men Williams-Ali as Robbins and the Crab Man, Tennessee’s Nicholas Davis as Jim, District of Columbia’s Edward Graves as Peter, New York’s Gabriella H. Sam as Lily, Illinois’ Zachary Owen as the Detective, Michigan’s Brent Michael Smith as the Policeman, Ohio’s Calvin Griffin as the Undertaker, Maryland’s Briana Elyse Hunter as Annie, Virginia’s Elliott Paige as Nelson and Oregon’s Jasmin White as the Strawberry Woman.

Chris Kholhede was the Coroner and Piers Shannon was Scipio.

Francesca Zambello’s Production, Peter J. Davison’s Set Designs and Mark McCullogh’s Lighting

The Glimmerglass Festival’s Artistic and General Director, Francesca Zambello, has a long-standing reputation as an advocate for Gershwin’s operatic masterpiece.

[Below: Sportin’ Life (Frederick Ballentine, front row, far right) expresses doubt that the Bible can be taken literally; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Zambello is the creator of an extraordinary predecessor production, utilizing the sets created by British designer Peter J. Davison, that has been presented in much larger opera houses than Glimmerglass’ Alice Busch Theater [for my reviews of the production’s presentations in Chicago and San Francisco, see The Zambello “Porgy and Bess” An Historic Success at Chicago’s Lyric – November 18, 2008 and Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera – June 21, 2009.]

Garnett Bruce was Associate Director. Eric Sean Fogel was choreographer for the production’s eye-catching dances. Paul Tazewell and Loren Shaw were respectively Costume Designer and Associate Costume Designer. The fight choreography was supervised by Joe Isenberg.

The stage of the Alice Busch Theater, the Glimmerglass Festival’s home, is smaller than the stages of the big urban opera houses in which the previous Zambello-Davison effort played, but proved hospitable to portraying the cramped tenements of the Catfish Row community. Peter J. Davison’s new sets retained the basic ideas of the previous production, but utilized the smaller venues effectively, concentrating one’s attention on each moment’s action.

Mark McCullogh’s lighting design featured an arresting reveal of Adeeb’s Clara singing Summertime with Davison’s sets towering over her through the dissolving scrim design. McCullogh’s lighting impressed me throughout the entire performance.

[Below: the scrim dissolves to reveal Clara (Meroë Khalia Adeeb, below center, holding infant) and Peter J. Davison’s set designs for Catfish Row; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


I enthusiastically recommend the opera, production, cast and musical performance to both the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.