Friday, June 10, 2016

Spoleto Festival USA makes colorful splash with new "Porgy and Bess"

Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
In celebration of its 40th anniversary and the newly renovated Gaillard Center, Spoleto Festival USA made a colorful splash with its production of “Porgy and Bess” on Wednesday, June 1st. The production, directed by David Herskovits, marked the first time that Gershwin’s opera about the cripple and the love of his life had been performed as part of the Festival and also the first time it had been done in Charleston since 1970, closing a pretty big hole since the opera’s story originated in Charleston. A lot of the splash in the performance I saw was caused by visual designer Jonathan Green, who envisioned the costumes and scenery in vibrant hues rather than the drab ones that are typically seen in “Porgy and Bess” productions. Adding to the excitement was an exceptional cast of principals, who sang with utmost conviction and intensity. Unfortunately, the audience was hampered in understanding the lyrics (written by DuBose Heywood and Ira Gershwin) because no supertitles were used.

Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
It would be difficult to overstate the entirely new visual aspect of the Spoleto Festival USA production. Green, a native of Charleston’s Gullah community, didn’t want to present the characters in the typical, downtrodden way that most of us associate with “Porgy and Bess.” Instead, he chose vivid colors that were inspired by West African culture. The houses along Catfish Row, created by designer Carolyn Mraz, exuded a colorful charm. Most of the costumes, designed by Annie Simon, blended an African style with a typical middle-class American style from the Twenties. Only Crown, during his time as an outcast on Kittiwah Island, and Bess, after she returned from her encounter with Crown, wore clothing that was torn and disheveled.
Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
The uplifting scenery worked well for the most part, but the hurricane scene didn’t have the fearful, claustrophobic effect that would’ve upped the ante. Also, the courtyard featured a large, curved, fountain-like basin that was apparently dry and barren in the first half of the opera but out of which sprouted a huge palm tree in the second half. A nice touch was the church steeples in the background, of which the highest was the steeple that belonged to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was a nod to the church where the massacre of parishioners took place last year. (That church, by the way, is just a couple of blocks from the Galliard Center.)
Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
Herskovits’s directions moved the large cast pretty well around the stage, but it seemed that the pacing of the production slowed down too much because almost none of the music was cut. So the chorus, in particular, had to stand about at times, without much to do. The fight between Crown and Robbins was one of the best I’ve ever seen, but Porgy’s strangling of Crown was not as convincing.

All of the principals’ voices surged with power and emotion, led by Lester Lynch as Porgy. Alyson Cambridge’s Bess broke a lot of hearts with her impassioned singing. Eric Greene created an intimidating presence as Crown. In the role of Sportin’ Life, Victor Ryan Robertson had a high-stepping field day except when he was threatened with by Lisa Dalitrus’s growling Maria. Sidney Outlaw’s Jake conveyed a welcoming sense of optimism. Indra Thomas wailed with Biblical conviction in role of Clara. In lesser roles, Courtney Johnson distinguished herself as Serena and Ivan Griffin as Robbins.

One of the unusual features of this production was the African-American chorus, which consisted of members from the John C. Smith University Concert Choir, expertly prepared by Chorus Master Duane Davis. Conducted energetically by Stefan Asbury, the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra got into the grand, jazzy-ragtimey nature of the music, displaying terrific dynamics range.

Over the past several years, $142 million was spent on the renovation of Gaillard Center, transforming the rundown auditorium into an impressive hall that seats 1,800. It has a horseshoe shape, but almost all of the seating is on the orchestra level, which slopes gently to an orchestra pit that generously accommodated the large orchestra needed for “Porgy and Bess.” All six performances of the Spoleto Festival USA production sold out two weeks after the tickets went on sale; so the Festival added a free simulcast plus a rebroadcast over the radio.

The acoustic of the hall was lively but the large voices just rolled in waves that made the text unintelligible a lot of the time. Supertitles would have fixed that problem and elevated the level of enjoyment. If Spoleto Festival USA ever decides to release a video of the production, it should include them.

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