Glimmerglass Festival 2017

Porgy and Bess Fully Realized as Opera in Gritty Production

Seen Aug. 11-13, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

We all know Porgy and Bess through partially and fully staged productions, and as a series of pretty songs, but Glimmerglass audiences got to see the real thing this season. As interpreted by Francesca Zambello, it had a violent edge. It was the artistic—and box office—success of the year.

It’s easy to see why. First, the Glimmerglass orchestra was directed by the leading “Porgy” conductor in the world, John DeMain. He’s conducted it more than 350 times, yet in a pre-concert talk he said it still is “brutally difficult” to conduct. You’d never have guessed.

The music is entirely composed and orchestrated by George Gershwin. It took years to write, in contrast to the iconic Rhapsody in Blue which was sketched out in weeks to meet the date of a Paul Whiteman-organized festival of new music. Gershwin played the piano himself—as only he could since he hadn’t yet written it out. The famous clarinet glissando that opens it was written by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger.

Porgy is set in Catfish Row in Charleston, SC, an actual large building that once had been grand but had fallen into decay in the early 1920s. Somewhat ironically, the building has been restored into luxury apartments.

Most of the men work as stevedores, and are a rough group. So the opening scene, a craps game, has an appropriate violent edge. A fight breaks out and Crown, Bess’s lover, kills one of the players and has to flee before the police get there. Norman Garrett, whose rich baritone has filled a wide variety of roles at Glimmerglass, brought intensity as an actor to Crown.

Of course, the opera is about Porgy, a beggar who observes most of the action through his front window, and Bess, loving and well-meaning, but weak and drug addicted. Although Porgy is played as severely crippled, South African Musa Ngqungwana was the image of strength. Soprano Talise Travigne projected vulnerability as Bess.

The opera was adapted, at Gershwin’s suggestion, from the play, Porgy, by DuBose Heyward, who wrote the libretto. Gershwin’s older brother, Ira, along with Heyward and his wife Dorothy, wrote the songs.

When Crown turns up later in the drama to reclaim Bess, who had taken refuge with Porgy, he gets into a fight with Porgy, who kills him. The power that Ngqungwana projected made the scene believable. His “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” was both beautiful and heartbreaking because we know that she isn’t, really.

All the drama revolves around Sportin Life, a drug dealer and all-around bad influence. Frederick Ballentine, a fine young tenor who is familiar to audiences at Glimmerglass and Washington National Opera, was so good his was a leading role. Slick and smiling, he was Satan incarnate.

In one of her “From Francesca’s Traveling iPad” reports, Zambello described intermission at the final performance which was a matinee during the eclipse of the sun. She’d reported in her pre-curtain talk that sales for Porgy and Bess had “eclipsed” all productions in the Festival’s history. A little corny, sure, but well-deserved.

Xerxes, a confusing tale with beautiful singing, was the traditional Baroque offering this season. One of the seemingly numberless Italian operas by George Frederic Handel, it was first produced in 1738. This was a fitting vehicle for counter tenor John Holiday Jr., who has made a name for himself playing various interpretations of Julius Caesar in Baroque operas.

Counter tenor is a falsetto voice, but as Holiday performs he sounds entirely natural, and entirely beautiful. The only problem was that when Xerxes is called on to do such things as banish his brother, a rival in love, Holiday sounded, well, so nice. Still, he was a joy to hear.

The story is a whole series of mismatched love affairs so that every paired character actually prefers a different mate who, in turn, prefers still another. As you can imagine, the audience had little chance to follow all this. The primary conflict is between Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes, who both love Romilda. Helping to keep us confused, Arsamenes was played, not by another counter tenor, but by mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita.

The other five characters were all played by members of the Young Artists Program, and all were equal to the task.

The production team in some ways overshadowed those on stage. Brilliant young conductor Nicole Paiement kept the music fresh, as she did last year in The Crucible. Director Tazewell Thompson, is a rising star but maybe not quite at home in Xerxes. Sara Jean Tosetti took costuming to another level. All were reasons that we didn’t care that we were confused, and we could just sit back and enjoy the music. 

The Siege of Calais, with music by Gaetano Donizetti, was the grimly serious bel canto offering. It was an American premiere, pretty much by definition, because it is a joint interpretation by Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri, conductor and Glimmerglass music director. It was produced in 1836 in Naples in Italy, during Donizetti’s creative peak, but definitely not one of those peak efforts.

In a program interview-essay, Colaneri explained the choices made in taking parts of the various versions Donizetti produced. For instance, it was conceived in the French manner even though it was an Italian production. That meant an extended ballet sequence, among other things. None of that is in this version. There also were alternate final acts. Colaneri combined the alternate endings. These are some of the reasons that the audience actually at Glimmerglass gets an experience beyond the frequent Public Radio rebroadcasts or what any writer can report. The program essays and pre-concert talks can’t really be part of reviews.

The setting is war between England and France that had been ongoing for nearly 10 years. Calais, on high ground at the narrowest point of the English Channel was protected by walls and moats that the English couldn’t storm, but they were able to cut off supplies of food and water.

The British have very little part in the opera, except near the conclusion. The drama is among the French as they receive a British offer to pardon the inhabitants if they surrender. The drama is expressed primarily in the orchestral writing of Donizetti, except for Eleonara, the wife of Aurelio, the son of the mayor, Eustachio. Leah Crocetto, used her dramatic soprano in varied and beautiful ways to sing, essentially, all the arias in the opera.

Aurelio is a major character, especially since he’s the first that we see as he scales down the wall to get food from the packs left unguarded by the British troops who’ve gone off, well, somewhere. Fighting isn’t actually going on right outside the walls. He’s discovered and runs off.

Aurelio returns to the walled city and reports the situation is hopeless. Aleks Romano was a fine Aurelio, and I’d never have guessed that the pretty mezzo-soprano wasn’t a boy.

The man behind the 1346-47 siege was King Edward III, Edoardo in the Italian opera. Harry Greenleaf, one of the many Young Artists in the cast, made the most of the part considering his character appears only briefly near the end of the opera, and is developed only minimally. It is the king’s cruel offer of pardon, on the condition that six men of noble birth agree to forfeit their lives that is at the crux of the drama.

In the Colaneri-Zambello version, the role of Queen Isabella, dropped by Donizetti in one of his revisions, is restored. That’s a blessing since it keeps the story from being totally depressing. The queen arrives at Calais, somewhat to the chagrin of Edoardo, in time to intercede to save the lives of the town’s leaders. Her power to do this wasn’t explained.

After nearly 200 years (the premiere was in 1836), The Siege of Calais is still a work in progress.

Oklahoma is the first musical theater piece by the new team of Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers. It opened to great success in 1943 at the height of World War II. It was considered revolutionary at the time in that it started with a complete book and songs before Rodgers began to write the music. In 2017, however, it seems dated.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t remain a great show. I have a special feeling for it because one of the first professional reviews I wrote was of a production at the long-ago Sacandaga Summer Theater. The theater was created and supported by Anthony Farrell, a wealthy producer with the contacts to sign major film and stage stars. He died in 1970 so my review was longer ago than I’d want to report.

The show was a great opportunity for members of the Young Artists program who made up almost the entire cast.

It is loosely the story of the love affair of Curly, played effectively by baritone Jarrett Ott, and Laurey (soprano Vanessa Becerra). It was Miss Becerra, already familiar to Glimmerglass audiences as Musetta in La Bohème, who was the revelation. As the central figure in the major dance scene, she showed she is a very talented dancer, something that doesn’t show up in her biography.

Laurey, who has inherited ownership of the family farm, is intensely independent so she attempts to hide her affection for Curly through insults. She carries her charade too far when she agrees to go to a dance with Jud Fry, the hired hand who alone is keeping the farm going. When he is defeated in bidding for the lunch basket prepared by Laurey (it carries the privilege of sharing the contents with her) he reveals the depth of his obsession with her. This is the heart of the dark side of the story.

Baritone Michael Hewitt, a Young Artist, was frightening as Jud Fry, exuding an air of danger. It was a masterful performance.

As seemingly the only adult in the community, Aunt Eller held the action together as well as being like a mother to Laurey. Judith Skinner, a veteran contralto, gave Aunt Eller a commanding personality and was in some ways the star of the show. She also made a somewhat similar contribution in the smaller role of Maria in Porgy and Bess.

Still, revolutionary as it seemed in 1943, Oklahoma today is primarily a collection of songs, strung together with a slim plot. Great songs some of them are. “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and, of course, the rousing “Oklahoma” anthem which became the official Oklahoma state song 10 years after the musical opened.

I’m sure people who live there today get tired of hearing it, but one can’t forget “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.” Some of the staging of the songs was particularly creative. You’d have to have seen it to believe wash tubs could be made into a convincing surrey with the fringe on top. Choreographer Parker Esse carried it off as the song became a dance.

Another highlight was Emma Roos as Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no.” She was able to project a complete character beyond her song.

Dylan Morrongiello a Young Artist whose credits are largely in college productions, showed his acting ability as he made Ali Hakim, a traveling peddler who never seemed to leave, a major part of the story. Ali was somehow irresistible to women, and Morrongiello carried it off.

Looking Ahead, the 2018 season will open with West Side Story, marking the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. This is an ambitious undertaking for an opera company, especially since it will feature the original Jerome Robbins choreography. There also will be a performance of Bernstein’s one-act Trouble in Tahiti, a concert of his work and a conversation with Bernstein’s daughter, writer and broadcaster Jamie Bernstein.

West Side Story is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, definitely major league stuff.

The operas will be Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and the modern opera Silent Night, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell.

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