Porgy and Bess” has been warmly welcomed into opera houses in recent years, after decades in no man’s land following its 1935 debut — and financial failure — as a Broadway musical. But it hasn’t been seen at the New York City Opera since 1965. A pioneer in expanding the boundaries of the repertoire, the company has had other catfish to fry. “Porgy’s” return after such a long absence , in the fully operatic version Gershwin intended, is an event.
It’s a pity, then, that the production on offer isn’t really new — it’s a refurbished version of a staging that originated at Houston Grand Opera and has traveled much since. Presumably aimed to please audiences and artistic directors all over the place, the sets by Douglas W. Schmidt are prettily evocative and serviceable, but lacking in imagination. Some quirks of staging are a little unfortunate — in the picnic scene, the boat visibly departs minutes before Bess tells Crown she’s got to go catch it. And at the acoustically troublesome State Theater, the painted scrim used during the opening minutes muffled voices distressingly — ears strained to hear Anita Johnson’s tenderly sung “Summertime.”
But small irritations are easy to forgive in “Porgy and Bess,” particularly since the Gershwins’ peerless score was treated with such loving care by a vocally powerful and appealing cast, marshaled by conductor John DeMain, a longtime champion of this opera.
At the opening night performance — City Opera rather unusually designated four perfs as previews, Broadway-style — Porgy was sung by Alvy Powell, a bass-baritone with a big, rich voice and the kind of emotional expressiveness that’s absolutely necessary. As Bess, Marquita Lister has both a natural and a vocal refinement that makes her character’s description as a “liquor-guzzlin’ slut” laughable — Lister’s Bess could give serious elocution lessons. The singer doesn’t really seem at ease in the role, but her lustrous soprano is a beautiful instrument, and she sang and acted the role with commitment nonetheless.
Also impressive was the smooth baritone of Timothy Robert Blevins as Crown, the hell-raiser who forsakes Bess to hide out when the heat is on, but demands her allegiance when it’s off, with deadly results. Blevins has a spectacular physique that certainly makes Bess’ thralldom understandable, but need so much care have been taken to display his chiseled cleavage? Overall Blevins was a magnetic, lighthearted Crown — a spirited victim of circumstance more than an ineradicably violent villain, lending his death a certain pathos.
Angela Simpson easily scored a triumph with a powerful rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now,” an emotional highlight of a score that’s extraordinarily rich in feeling, while Sabrina Elayne Carten was a sassy, vital Maria. Her sparring with the Sportin’ Life of Dwayne Clark earned real laughter. Clark’s tenor, however, sounded somewhat thin, and Kenneth Floyd, as Jake, was unable to make his handsome baritone sufficiently audible above the orchestra, a problem that plagued other singers at times, too.
Although Gershwin’s gorgeous melodies are divided among choral numbers, solos and the occasional ensemble, his affection for the big, ebullient sounds of gospel and folk singing carried him away a bit. Despite its wrenching storyline, “Porgy and Bess” is all too easily upstaged by Gershwins’ rich evocation of the Catfish Row milieu, leaving the central tragedy struggling for a purchase on our emotions. It’s an obstacle that only the most carefully calibrated productions can overcome, and despite the best efforts of a talented cast, director Tazewell Thompson’s doesn’t. Musically rapturous, it’s emotionally tepid.