Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Summertime, And the Opera is Splendid

The summer season at San Francisco Opera is now in session, and yesterday, I managed to get a standing-room ticket to the opening night of Porgy and Bess. Then, as I stood at the back of the auditorium waiting for the opera to start, a woman came up to me and offered an extra ticket she had in Row E! I was a little hesitant to take it (I'm an able-bodied young person who wouldn't have much trouble standing for three hours; some of my fellow standees were much older) but really, what else could I do? So I ended up paying $10 and sitting in a seat that normally costs $200. I was so close I had to crane my neck to read the surtitles (fortunately this opera is in English); so close that when the singers came over to my side of the stage, their voices really boomed out.

I'd been wanting to see Porgy and Bess for a long time: I love Gershwin and the 1930s and works that can be considered either unusually sophisticated musicals or unusually unpretentious operas. (To give you some idea of how hard Porgy and Bess is to classify: Stephen Sondheim has said that he is really not a fan of opera or through-sung musicals--and also says that Porgy and Bess is his all-time favorite score. Go figure.) And I came away thoroughly impressed. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is as great a love duet as has ever been written for either an opera or a musical. During intermission I walked around the opera house hallways humming that, and "I Got Plenty Of Nothin'," and "It Ain't Necessarily So"--I couldn't help myself!

Occasionally I thought that there were a few too many scenes of "local color" in Porgy and Bess, which got in the way of the storytelling (when a woman came onstage selling strawberries, I thought "enough with the street vendors already"). And I agree also with the program note that says that the role of Bess is a bit vague--defined by whatever man she happens to be with at the time, not by her own innate personality. But these are minor quibbles for what really is a great work. Can you believe that the same man who churned out perky '20s ditties like "I've Got a Crush on You" could also write the very complex choral work and orchestrations of Porgy and Bess? Or that he could so well imitate African-American spirituals--not just their melodic characteristics, but their stirring sense of faith? The final moments are wonderfully bittersweet and inspiring.

This production moved the setting to the 1950s, I'm not quite sure why. So some of the stage pictures ended up reminding me of West Side Story, of all things: the stylized, balletic knife fights, and the garishly colored lights that lit up the stage when Bess put on her Anita-esque orange dress and ran off to New York with Sportin' Life. (At curtain call, the director, Francesca Zambello, came out wearing an orange blouse that I was sure she had chosen to match Bess's costume!) Overall it was a fine production, except for some movement depicting Jake and Clara's deaths in the hurricane, which didn't really work. Also, why was the hurricane represented by strobe lights and thunderclaps? We should all know by now that a hurricane is not a thunderstorm!

The singing was very strong and everyone seemed well suited to their parts, physically as well as vocally. Eric Owens, who played Porgy, has a kindly face that made him instantly sympathetic; there is also something touching about seeing such a big and powerful man hobble around on a crutch. Laquita Mitchell, in a role debut as Bess, made sense of this victimized woman and sang in a rich voice. Chauncey Packer gave a wonderfully physical performance as Sportin' Life--I loved his dance moves in this scene-stealing part. Angel Blue had a beautiful voice with which to sing "Summertime" and begin the opera. Question: people always say that Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized musical theater by beginning Oklahoma! with a cowboy singing a gentle ballad, not with a big flashy production number--but didn't Gershwin get there the previous decade, beginning Porgy and Bess with a young black woman singing a lullaby to her baby?

Porgy and Bess is all sold out, so if you want to see it, you'll have to be like me and try for standing room. May you be as lucky as I was, and may you enjoy it as much as I did!

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