Porgy and Bess

Alvy Powell and Marquita Listerin Porgy and Bess(© Carol Rosegg)
Alvy Powell and Marquita Lister
in Porgy and Bess
(© Carol Rosegg)

Sherwin M. Goldman’s commitment to George Gershwin’s glorious opera Porgy and Bess extends back to 1976, when Goldman presented the masterwork in celebration of the American bicentennial. That production–first seen at the Houston Grand Opera, then on Broadway and later on tour throughout the U.S. and Europe–was the first to stage P&B in the full-scale, operatic style first intended; even the original version was scaled down in terms of length, orchestra, etc. for presentation at the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon) on Broadway in 1935.

Goldman offered a new production of the opera in 1982 for Radio City Music Hall, and yet another in 1986 that started as a U.S. tour and eventually reached Paris, Munich, London, several cities in Italy, and Tokyo. This most recent Porgy and Bess is now in the midst of a smash-hit, 14 performance run (through March 25) at New York City Opera

P&B hasn’t been seen at NYCO in 35 years, and it’s great to have it back. Audiences are responding in a big way to the production, which does full justice to Gershwin’s brilliant setting of DuBose Heyward’s libretto (based on an original play he wrote his wife, Dorothy, and with additional lyrics by Ira Gershwin). You have your choice between two alternating casts of leading players–but I urge you to catch Alvy Powell as Porgy, because he is giving a performance for the ages.

You’ve really got to see and hear this guy to believe him. Powell displays a huge, round, ringing, gorgeous baritone that withstands comparison to such legendary interpreters of Porgy as Todd Duncan, Lawrence Winters, and William Warfield. As if singing of this quality wasn’t enough to ask of any human being, Powell also acts the role with power and nuance. Several audience members literally leapt to their feet when he took his curtain call at the performance I attended, and their enthusiasm was 100% justified.

Happily, he is well-partnered. Marquita Lister’s versatile soprano easily and beautifully encompasses the rangy role of Bess. She may also have the most beautiful body of any woman to have played the role–no minor attribute, as Bess is supposed to be a total knockout. Lister’s equal in terms of vocal excellence and physical pulchritude is Timothy Robert Blevins as Crown; when these two perform the duet “What You Want Wid Bess?” to close the first half of the City Opera production, the theater fairly bursts with sexual tension.

The singing and acting (and dancing!) of the supporting cast and the ensemble/chorus could not be better. Angela Simpson practically wakes the dead in Serena’s great aria, “My Man’s Gone Now.” Dwayne Clark is perfectly oily and repulsive as the drug dealer Sportin’ Life. Anita Johnson, as Clara, gives a lovely, lyrical rendition of the lullaby “Summertime” and its several reprises. Sabrina Elayne Carten, as Maria, deftly manages the unusual blend of Broadway belting and legit opera singing called for by the role. And Michael Austin sounds so great as Robbins that one imagines he’d be a fine Porgy in his own right.

Though it is one of the great artistic masterpieces of all time, Porgy and Bess does have two significant flaws: its inordinate length and the extreme thickness of its orchestration. A performance of the complete, three-act work with two intermissions would surely run close to four hours–but, thanks to judicious cutting, NYCO’s production clocks in at three hours (including one intermission). Aside from the marathon nature of the work, the singers must struggle to make their voices heard above Gershwin’s soaring strings, pounding brass, and babbling woodwinds. The good news from City Opera is that, among the huge P&B cast, only Kenneth Floyd (Jake) fails to cut the mustard in this regard. (Not so incidentally: NYCO installed a sound enhancement system last year in order to focus and clarify the sound emanating from the stage of the New York State Theater, and there can be no greater argument for such a system than the production of a work like this one.)

Conductor/musical director John DeMain–who served in the same capacity for Porgy and Bess on Broadway in 1976, and for the definitive, note-complete, three-disc recording of that production–is once again fully in charge of the magnificent score at NYCO. Tazewell Thompson’s direction is, for the most part, exemplary: The emotional arc of the opera is clear, and there are lots of nice touches in the staging (e.g., Porgy’s bitterness before he begins his romance with Bess is established in a bit of business with the children of Catfish Row). Thanks in part to an ingenious dovetailing of scenes, the production moves at a brisk clip; for instance, the gorgeous orchestral postlude to the first scene is used as a bridge to the second scene (Robbins’ funeral), with no pause in the stage action.

Though Robert Wierzel’s lighting is a bit spotty, Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets and Nancy Potts’ costumes are terrific. New York City Opera’s Porgy and Bess is, at once, the finest operatic production and the best musical in town. You’ll hate yourself if you miss it.