Princeton Festival Turns Up the Heat With Its Production of “Porgy and Bess”
Princeton Festival continued its season this past Sunday afternoon with a sultry performance of George Gershwin’s immortal opera Porgy and Bess at the Matthews Theater of the McCarter Theater Centre for the Performing Arts. Considered the first completely successful and truly American opera, Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in its palette of American musical styles and influences. Although its 1935 premiere was on the Broadway stage, this work’s operatic vocal demands ask much of the singers, but leave the audience with some of the great tunes of early 20th-century America. Despite its length (productions often cut material, mostly in the first act), Porgy has remained a continued hit on operatic stages.
Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk took a brisk tempo for the musical introduction to the opening scene (often pared down in other productions), and a set bathed in purple combined with sinuous dance sequences (choreographed by Graham Lustig) created a steamy atmosphere marking the South Carolina setting. Porgy and Bess has a number of signature songs, the first of which heard was “Summertime,” sung on Sunday afternoon by soprano Brandie Sutton as the content and matronly Clara. “Summertime” recurs several times in the opera (including in a poignant duet with Clara’s husband Jake) and each time Ms. Sutton sang with a full rich voice often accompanied by a sinewy flute solo.
For an almost four-hour opera, the plot to Porgy and Bess is a bit thin, and much of the work serves as a blend of American musical idioms — including jazz, gospel, and parable-in-song — and opportunities for phenomenal singers to present lush melodies and snappy rhythms. Princeton Festival seemingly spared no expense in bringing talent to this production, and soprano Janinah Burnett brought her experience at the Metropolitan Opera to create the role of Bess. Deliberately dressed indecorously, in contrast to Marie Miller’s subdued costuming for the first act, Ms. Burnett demonstrated a full command of dramatic and forceful singing while floating notes in the upper register. Most intense was her Act II duet with the dock-loader Crown, commandingly sung by baritone Michael Redding.
As Porgy, Richard Todd Payne brought a full sense of both jazz and passion to the role of the gentle crippled competing with Crown for the affections of Bess. Both he and Ms. Burnett sought to “bend the rhythm” of Gershwin’s luxuriant melodies, with both voices synchronizing well to create a heavenly duet in another signature song, “Bess, You is my Woman Now.” Mr. Payne also effectively found the spirited syncopated effects in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” with a small battle of musical wills between Mr. Payne’s desire to stretch the rhythm and the Festival Orchestra’s quest for exact precision.
Bess’ attempts to follow the straight and narrow are not only thwarted by Crown, but also by the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, sung with animation and character by tenor Robert Mack. Dressed like the proverbial fox in one of the few costumes of color in the first act, Mr. Mack drew on physicality and comedic timing as he continually tried to lure Bess back to the dark side. Mr. Mack’s rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was full of lively animation, physical presence, and precise timing with the orchestra.
From chorus member through the principal leads, all singers in Porgy and Bess were required to produce, and the singers of this production did not disappoint. Soprano Reyna Carguill sang “My Man’s Gone Now” with luxuriance, while Kenneth Overton provided sassiness and attitude to “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” As Crown, Mr. Redding was sufficiently menacing when he needed to be, showing a rich voice that would make one want to hear his next Don Giovanni performance. At full force there was a full assembly of people on the stage, with the chorus providing the fullest sound heard in a Princeton Festival production. Clearly allowed to sing with color and expression, the many singers of the “Residents of Catfish Row,” prepared by Gail Blache-Gill, showed power and solidity; even when humming, the chorus was vocally strong. The adult chorus was joined by an equally as strong contingent from the Trenton Children’s Chorus, prepared by Dawn Golding.
Mr. Tang Yuk kept the action flowing well as conductor, leading the Princeton Festival Orchestra through a score that was as complex as any orchestral score from the early 20th century. Gershwin incorporated a number of effects characteristic of the time, including the use of banjo, played on Sunday by Patrick Mercuri. A number of elegant instrumental solos and unique colors could be heard, including from violist Julie DiGaetani, flutist Kim Reighley, clarinetist Rie Huebner, and a trio of saxophones played by Jay Hassler, Josh Kovach, and Robert Huebner. Costume designer Marie Miller used a wide range of dress to convey the times and lighting designer Norman Coates complemented John Farrell’s practical and effective sets with lighting nuance. This production of Porgy and Bess was more than a handful for Princeton Festival to take on, but the singers and instrumentalists down to the last were fully committed to bringing this story to life.