Despite technical glitches, BSO’s “Porgy” proves rich and evocative

September 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm

By Keith Powers

With a bold, deeply appealing and sometimes flawed presentation, the Boston Symphony Orchestra staged Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.

Most productions of Porgy polarize music lovers: fans of musical theater and fans of opera both claim the work as their own, or reject it as unfit. One thing remains unchanging—the music has striking originality, and accessible greatness, and this production brought out most of what makes Porgy and Bess one of America’s best-loved creations.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell as Bess and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Porgy, reprised roles they first created in August 2011 at Tanglewood. Mitchell and Walker were joined by a top-flight supporting cast and backed by huge orchestra and the effervescent Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Bramwell Tovey conducted.

One unquestionable highlight of this concert staging was the theatrical direction. The soloists played out their roles along the front of the stage, entering and exiting discreetly to the sides. The action—crap games, dancing, fish hauling and mourning—was carried out with a natural intimacy that avoided heavy handed, symbolic gesturing.

The chorus, normally as prim and well behaved as school kids, swayed and waved, clapped their hands, and interacted amicably with the soloists and among themselves. Special touches, like Crab Man and the Strawberry Woman selling their wares in the aisles, cleverly evoked a fully staged version. (No credit for direction was given in the program for blocking and acting instructions, so one must assume they came from Tovey, who conducted smartly throughout.)

Less successful was the sound balancing. The soloists were all miked, and piped in over the speakers, normally verboten in the acoustic excellence of Symphony Hall. But with a huge orchestra onstage rather than in a pit, and a full throated chorus behind the stars, there was probably little choice. Still, there were numerous times when the front-of-stage singing was overwhelmed, and there were amateuriish technical gaffes like backstage patter making its way over the speakers. The miking was a necessity, but for every two problems it fixed, it caused an alternate one.

The cast, many of them Porgy specialists, was outstanding. Mitchell rushed her voice to crescendos once or twice, but generally embodied the role through her instrument with aplomb, creating human appeal to Bess’s confused desires. Walker had an even greater challenge, converting his stout able body into Gershwin’s “cripple” hero, but he sang with a noble air and won the audience. The purest voice belonged to soprano Angel Blue as Clara; Summertime is always an arresting opening aria, but hers was a lyric triumph.

Baritone Leon Williams, as her doomed fisherman husband Jake, sang It Takes a Long Pull to Get There with a cultured idiom that still evoked its folk roots.  The crowd-pleasing Sporting Life (tenor Jermaine Smith) punctuated his role with Savion Glover–like splits, slides and toe touching leaps.

Marquita Lister (Serena), Gwendolyn Brown (Maria), Krysty Swann (Annie), Gregg Baker (Crown), Alison Buchanan (Strawberry Woman, others), John Fulton (Robbins) and Chauncey Packer (Peter, others) all invested their roles with authority. Of the speaking parts, Symphony Hall regular Will LeBow (Detective) unfortunately forgot his lines at one point, bringing some unwanted attention to his small part.

Tovey conducted with great understanding, and additionally helped plunge the audience directly into the “opera or musical theater?” conundrum by leaping off the podium mid-overture, and pounding out the conclusion barrelhouse style on a mistuned upright. The chorus, prepared with care by John Oliver, seemed liberated by its acting requirements and sang with gusto.

Everyone brings some expectation to Porgy and Bess. Its many identities—operatic, theatrical, even vaudevillian—contrast, infuriate, and amazingly, also co-exist. This was an ambitious staging, an important one, and it illuminated all the issues that make Gershwin’s opera the classic it is.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; 617-266-1200.

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