"Porgy and Bess" and Syracuse Opera: A Sensational Match

Porgy (Gordon Hawkins) and Bess (Laquita Mitchell) in "Porgy and Bess." Photo by Doug Wonders Porgy and Bess

Who: Syracuse Opera 

Where: 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse, NY

When: April 6, 2014

Reviewed by Sarah Hope

Performed for a sold out crowd in the Crouse Hinds Theater, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was the conclusion - and certainly the highlight - of Syracuse Opera’s 2013-2014 season.

Considered the preeminent all-American opera, Porgy and Bess is based on the 1925 novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. It was first adapted for the stage by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, and enjoyed some success as a straight play from 1927-1928. During this time, after reading the novel, George Gershwin showed an early interest in setting the story to music. Though it took the Heywards and the Gershwins (George and Ira) several years to sign a contract, the “folk opera” premiered at New York’s Alvin Theater in 1935.

The story follows a woman, Bess, stuck in an abusive relationship and a dangerously “fast” lifestyle as she falls for the beloved but disabled Porgy, a poor beggar. Set in Catfish Row, a fictional tenement neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1920s, Porgy and Bess is alternately a tale of love, abuse, addiction and spiritual transcendence. The emotional journey is guided and underlined by the evocative and all-too-familiar jazz music of George Gershwin. 

The titular characters were portrayed by Gordon Hawkins and Laquita Mitchell, and represented some of the strongest performances I’ve seen in a Syracuse Opera production. Mitchell smartly reified Bess in both her beneficent and boozy states with a tightly controlled, wrenchingly emotive, and altogether flawless soprano. Hawkins, winner of numerous awards and renowned worldwide for his bel canto roles, introduced a strong, sensitive Porgy through his smooth baritone and convincing portrayal of a man crippled in body but never in spirit.

Bess (Laquita Mitchell) yearning and burning for a change in "Porgy and Bess." Photo by Doug Wonders

Unfortunately, though excellent in their own respects, Mitchell and Hawkins were poorly matched in terms of both vocal and physical chemistry. During their duets, Mitchell often overpowered Hawkins, and their voices blended so poorly as to render the depth of their romance suspect. 

Porgy and Bess is a challenging work to cast, due to the virtuosity of all parts - principal, supporting, and choral. With such a demanding vocal score, it is notable that, among the fifteen named characters, there was not a single weak link. Each artist brought unique strengths to the performance. This show was as much about the community and its various members as it was about the titular couple, and the chemistry that Mitchell and Hawkins lacked could be found throughout other relationships within the story. The deeply rooted connections among members of the Catfish Row community were delightfully authentic.

Vocally, one performance stood out above that of both principals. Aundie Marie Moore was smashing as Serena, the moral and spiritual compass of the community. Her performance of “My Man’s Gone Now” was a near show-stopper. Her vibrant soprano filled the theater with ease - a notable trait, given that the show is always staged without microphone amplification, per copyright requirements. Moore’s meticulous melismatic control was striking, and as brilliant as I found Mitchell’s performance to be, I would love to see Moore in the title role.

Other notable vocal performances included Brittany Walker as Clara and Victor Ryan Robertson as Sportin’ Life. Walker placed her high notes in “Summertime” and throughout with such grace and clarity, the audience could have no trouble interpreting them by turns as happiness, fear or grief. Robertson’s sharp, musical theater-tinged tenor was a welcome contrast to the operatic fullness of his fellows.

Despite the impressive vocal performances by all, the theatrical star of the production by far was Gwendolyn Brown as Maria, keeper of the cook-shop. During “I Hates Yo’ Struttin’ Style,” where Maria comically admonishes the unrepentant troublemaker Sportin’ Life, a single long note so struck the audience that it elicited a smattering of surprised (and impressed) applause. From that point forward Brown nearly stole the show, with a splendid vocal performance and expert comic timing of Maria’s characteristic snarky asides.

Sportin' Life (Victor Ryan Robertson) and Bess (Laquita Mitchell) in "Porgy and Bess." Photo by Doug Wonders.

Scott Holdredge’s Charleston-inspired impressionist set was unpretentious but effective, transporting us to 1920s Charleston while allowing the story to remain the central attraction. Hope Clarke’s direction had a similar effect, simply allowing the performers to shine.

The music was performed by Symphoria and conducted by Syracuse Opera’s producing and artistic director Douglas Kinney Frost. The orchestra was situated on stage behind the performers, an arrangement that was surprisingly unobtrusive. The blend of an unamplified orchestra with unamplified vocalists could have been disastrous, but the mix was well-balanced and clear. Symphoria performed Gershwin’s classics with the ease and attitude essential to jazz, and Frost’s conducting showed deft command and control of both orchestra and ensemble. The Syracuse Opera chorus was equally wonderful. We have some talented people in this town.

This production of Porgy and Bess, coming in at just under 3 ½ hours, felt much shorter. I was fully immersed in the Catfish Row world, straying in focus only to notice the murmurs of approval that occasionally rumbled through the sold-out crowd at Crouse Hinds. I encountered many friends and fellow opera lovers in the lobby before and after the performance; it was clear that this was an event not to miss.

However, if anything keeps this from being the singularly unmarred achievement of Syracuse Opera’s 39th season, it is the fact that it was only performed once. The buzz this performance is sure to generate would have inspired other Gershwin fans and theater-goers to attend a later performance. 

But alas, we will now have to wait for the company’s 40th anniversary season beginning this fall, when they will be staging performances of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Until then, let this success sit comfortably in our minds as a reminder of exactly what the Syracuse classical arts community has to offer.