Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 10, 2010

Porgy and Bess

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 13, 2010
by Barbara Stroup

This year commemorates the 75th anniversary debut in New York of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. It took roughly 50 years for the work to be recognized as grand opera; it is now respected for its blend of song, jazz, blues, gospel and folk music styles. Several familiar songs -- "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" - contrast with the intricate chorus work throughout. The story is propelled through the music. Love, transformation, jealousy and crime bring pathos - and a few comic moments - to the stage.

The production appeals visually; Catfish Row consists of roughly constructed two-story movable 'buildings.' The stage is surrounded by Spanish moss and is backed with a sky of colors that change to reflect the drama below. Strong singing is enhanced by choreography that shows some African roots. With a few exceptions, the color palette is warm and brown. The change to bright, summery whites for the picnic scene is striking and welcome, and the colors of Sportin' Life's ensembles are the only intrusion of another, less gentle culture.

Mortensen Hall has served as a traditional, non-amplified opera venue for years, so one has to wonder at the sound design decisions made for this production. Computers sat on both sides of the stage, broadcasting the conductor's movements to all. Large stage microphones and giant speakers amplified and distorted the singers' vocal efforts. If they had been working consistently, the super titles would have helped the audience understand the words. The sound system seemed to make the singers, especially the male voices, sound the same. Output was uniformly loud, and that erased any chance the singers had of expressing an interpretive and nuanced dynamic range. There were a few moments when the system seemed to fail, and wonderful voices came through to the audience without boosting.

Donita Volkwijn (Bess) and Reggie Whitehead (Sportin' Life) gave outstanding performances. The interaction between Whitehead and Gwendolyn Brown (Maria) was a comedic high point. Whitehead seemed to own the character and every movement of his hands, legs, and eyes gave the audience a sense of cheerful sleaze - he pulled one into his world with ease.