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Monday, June 15, 2009

Last Night: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at War Memorial Opera House

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 8:55 AM

click to enlarge Eric Owens (Porgy) and Laquita Mitchell (Bess) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Eric Owens (Porgy) and Laquita Mitchell (Bess)
Better than: Being trampled -- in your own seat -- by half the people in your section as they make for the Irish coffee at intermission. More on that later.

On the BART ride home after San Francisco Opera's Sunday evening performance of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, I overheard a woman discussing the show with a seatmate who'd apparently just come from Wicked. She declared it "the best opera I've ever seen," largely because she deemed it suitable for "people who don't really like opera that much."  Which, I'd imagine, is sort of a mixed bag of a reaction if you work in outreach for SFO. While I'm not sure I can agree with the first part of the woman's claim, the second part is central to understanding the production's appeal.  

You've heard of theater of the absurd?  Porgy and Bess may well be called something like "opera of the quotidian," featuring musical idioms borrowed from jazz, blues, and pop instead of a traditional classical score; minor characters such as "Crab Man" and "Strawberry Woman" rather than the hangers-on of the nobility; South Carolina's fictitious "Catfish Row" instead of a glamorous European locale; and not least, a libretto in English rather than in Italian, French, or German.  Indeed, the production can at times seem like more of a musical than an opera (though Porgy and Bess: The Musical closed after a brief, ill-fated run in London in 2006). And it wasn't until the late 1970s, following a groundbreaking production by the Houston Grand Opera, that the work became a widely accepted part of the operatic canon.

Chauncey Packer (Sportin' Life) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Chauncey Packer (Sportin' Life)
Porgy does, however, adhere to opera tradition by not having much in the way of a plot.  It's essentially a four-sided love triangle, if such a thing is possible, as Bess (soprano Laquita Mitchell), a headstrong woman of what was once called easy virtue, is simultaneously wooed by bad-news boyfriend Crown (baritone Lester Lynch), "happy dust" pusher Sportin' Life (tenor Chauncey Packer), and of course the eponymous crippled beggar, Porgy (bass-baritone Eric Owens). The voices in the cast range from good to excellent, with Owens especially coming into his own as the show progressed -- his duets with Mitchell were a consistent highlight. As one of the more reliably entertaining characters, Packer makes the most of his signature moments. Francesca Zambello's acclaimed production forms a worthy setting for the vocal talent on display.

What the show does best, though -- and what truly sets it apart from most other operas -- is its capacity for painting a picture of a whole community, instead of focusing on select members of a usually aristocratic or artistic set. In a way, this sense of community is both affirming and destructive.  While the characters draw a measure of strength from their surroundings and from each other, a grim sense of socioeconomic determinism similar to that found in such African-American novels as Ann Petrie's The Street or Nella Larsen's Quicksand pervades Catfish Row. This may be Porgy's most radical departure from operatic stereotypes, as well as the source of some of its popular appeal -- in a genre that glorifies the prima donna and various notions of the heroic and the individualistic, the Gershwins' work brings home the fact that, for most of us, it ain't necessarily so.

Laquita Mitchell (Bess) and Lester Lynch (Crown) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Laquita Mitchell (Bess) and Lester Lynch (Crown)
Critic's Notebook

Personal bias:
  Since Porgy falls into the category of "opera for people who don't usually go to the opera," I will devote this space to a brief overview of opera etiquette. First, it is excessive to clap after every aria. Second, it is rude to flee as soon as the final curtain falls -- this would be your opportunity to applaud.  Third, it is exceedingly rude to barge through a partially occupied row of seats to get to the exit at intermission, particularly if 30 other people then follow your lead. The fact that I'd rather stay in my seat during the interval does not give you the right to use me as a doormat, unless something akin to the 1903 fire at Chicago's Iroquois Theater is going down.

Random detail:  In 2001, Porgy and Bess was named the official state opera of South Carolina. (California has no such designated production -- though Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West comes to mind as a possibility -- but we did find the time to dub square dancing our state folk dance.)

By the way: All four remaining performances are sold out; call 864-3330 for updated availability. Sung in English, with supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss


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