By Ron Fassler
Having first aired on PBS in 2013, the 2009 San Francisco Opera’s magnificent rendition of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is now playing on Broadway HD, the essential online paid subscription service. When reviewing, I usually withhold from a word like “magnificent,” but I use it here to describe this production free of hyperbole. Led by a flawless cast of exceptional singers, the direction by Francesca Zambello and the expert conducting of John DeMain made for a soaring and seductive performance.
As the then-leader of the San Francisco Opera, it was David Gockley who made this production possible. He knew the piece intimately, as he was also responsible for the Porgy and Bess from forty-four years ago that rocked the world. That was when, as head of the Houston Grand Opera, and alongside John DeMain (again conducting this version), they worked tirelessly on reconstructing George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s masterpiece. That production was such a success, it was brought to Broadway for its first revival in twenty-three years, finally allowing audiences the chance to see it as originally envisioned. I saw it and, to this day, can recall visual elements with striking clarity. And since it was recorded by RCA, anyone can listen to it today (sadly, it was not videoed).
But thankfully this production was preserved and Zambello’s bold, yet unobtrusive, direction marks a perfect blend of high highs and low lows. Her chief interest was in telling the story, allowing for the elements to flow and the performances to take flight by seeing to every detail that created a total immersion in Catfish Row. The scenic design by Peter J. Davison had the action unfold almost entirely on what, to my mind, looked like some sort of tin warehouse. It speaks to the sense of community that is integral to the denizens of Catfish Row—everyone stuck in shared poverty with only mutual trust and their singing binding them together. Every so often there was a stunning lighting effect from designer Mark McCullough, whose overall work here is top notch. Kudos to the costumes by Paul Tazewell, which were perfectly suited.
As for the actor/singers, I was impressed with all of them. Bass-baritone Eric Owens made a superb Porgy, utilizing one crutch to convey the character’s disability. Gone was the cart (and the goat), but that’s been the usual way of things for some time. He really got me at the end, heartbroken but stirred to action after he’s lost his love. He threw himself into the role with abandon and his voice is remarkable. His rendition of “Where’s My Bess?” and then “Lord, I’m on My Way” were stirring and emotional and left me in tears. Laquita Mitchell’s Bess sort of took a back seat (it is the smaller role), but she had a perfect look for the role, as well as a tender and beautiful voice with which to manage her exquisite songs.
I was also taken with Angel Blue as Clara (she is the one who opens the show with “Summertime), and with Eric Greene as Jake (her husband). He has a glorious voice, which he shows off beautifully with “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” The villainous Crown was underplayed (to the extent one can with such a role), by Lester Lynch, whose duet with Bess towards the climax of Act One was thrilling.
Karen Slack gave “My Man’s Gone Now” the depth and emotion it requires, hitting some of those notes into the stratosphere with chilling authority. And the Sportin’ Life of Chauncey Packer, though a little more operatic than Broadway (compared to other Sportin’ Lifes I’ve seen and heard), cut quite a figure in his lavender suits and offered a very sly and funny “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Mentioning just those songs should have you ready to experience Porgy and Bess, even if you’ve seen it before. If you have Broadway HD, or if you care to purchase a video of this production, it’s available at Amazon and at other choice sites.
Run time: 2 hrs. 38 minutes, thru September www.BroadwayHD.com