History was made this past Saturday night at Hill Auditorium. The University Musical Society and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance presented the new, scholarly performing edition of the score of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” in a concert style. The original Gershwin score was edited and refined by Wayne Shirley from the University’s Gershwin Initiative, which aims to create scholarly versions of the Gershwins’ works.
A standing ovation at the end of the four-hour long performance and the multiple applauses that exploded from the audience in the middle of acts attest to the incredible vocal and performing skill of the entire cast. “Porgy and Bess” is a work that deals with heavy topics, such as drug abuse, sexual abuse and racism, in a controversial way. The opera was not only vocally exhaustive — singing for four hours is no small feat — the content of the opera inevitably makes it emotionally exhaustive, as well. Soprano Karen Slack, who was the role of Serena, gave a notably heartbreaking performance of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Her powerful voice and expressiveness sent a wave of anguish over the audience. As Slack sang about the heart-wrenching grief of a widow, I found my own heart aching and paining for Serena’s loss of her husband.
Tenor Chauncey Parker gave a lively performance playing Sportin’ Life, a dope dealer. Parker fully embodied this deceivingly charming character in both voice and movement. One of his most memorable moments was his performance of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” where Parker masterfully inflected his voice to embellish the already jazzy and bluesy music, and danced to the more light-hearted jazz melody. His fun energy emanated from the stage, giving the audience a rest from the heavy emotions that are constantly hammered at throughout the entire opera. Parker used the character to charm the audience as he charms most of the rest of the characters in “Porgy.” It’s a genius way to approach a character that is supposed to represent a malicious force in the community.
The chorus, under the direction of Jerry Blackstone and Willis C. Patterson, played an interesting role in the scheme of events of the opera. They provided many functions in this performance, such as commentators, narrators, scene setters or informants interacting with the lead roles. They produced a beautiful, well-blended sound and partook in the emotions that all of the main roles were feeling. The chorus was flexible and effectively acted in whatever role they were in at the time — not just singing words from a page, but understanding the significance of the words they were singing and finding their own individual meanings behind the words. Whenever they chimed in on the action of Porgy and Bess, it was always a memorable and powerful moment.
The singing was exquisite. Morris Robinson (who played Porgy) had a bass voice that bellowed every time he opened his mouth, sending dark, rich tones sweeping over the audience. His bombastic grumbles vibrated the walls of Hill Auditorium, a beautiful contrast with the smooth and floaty tones that soprano Talise Trevigne, who played Bess, produced. Trevigne’s voice was enchanting to listen to and complimented her graceful stage presence.
All of the title roles displayed great attention to vocal technique, which produced powerful and alluring sounds. Still, at times, I wished that the performers would have paid more attention to detail when it came to physically embodying their characters. The performance was given in a concert style, giving room for the performers to not only showcase their beautiful voices, but to fill the stage completely with the raw emotion that the opera lends itself to. When characters were alone on stage in order to sing their arias, it seemed more natural and easier for them to express the emotions of their characters in a convincing and natural way.
However, when more than one performer was on stage, the body language of the characters had seemed to change. I wished that the performers would have gone further in establishing their relationships by making more eye contact and interacting with each other in a non-superficial way. “Porgy and Bess” is a work that should leave the audience in tears from the pain, in a cloud of bittersweetness. This performance did not have that effect on me, despite the beautiful voices and orchestration.
The University Orchestra, under the direction of Kenneth Kiesler, gave a stellar performance. I really enjoyed hearing the bluesy and jazzy tones coming from the orchestra — it gave a very cool dynamic to the show. The instrumentalists displayed such stamina and professionality — playing together for four hours straight and not seeming the least bit exhausted by the end of the show.
Time flew by watching this spectacular performance of “Porgy and Bess” and listening to the premiere of the new scholarly performing score edited by Wayne Shirley. It was an incredible experience to see a piece of art history form before my own eyes.