Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Hey Young Lovers!

June 28, 2009

Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2009

It’s Pride Weekend in San Francisco (if that's what they’re still calling it these days), and what better way to spend it than listening to a straight couple make out behind me for over three hours during the course of a performance of Porgy and Bess? (Cooing and giggling aside, here’s a tip for you young lovers out there – if you’re going to put out for as little as dinner and a rear orchestra seat, you may want to aim a little higher.) And I suppose if one must view opera as something inherently romantic and suitable for date night, Gershwin’s tale of murder, drug dealing, and the failure of the redemptive power of love is no less appropriate than anything Verdi wrote. Plus it’s in English, allowing you to easily sing along at parts when you need a break from making out. Annoyances aside, Porgy and Bess is an odd duck of the opera canon. Popular to be sure because of its many familiar tunes, but not immediately related to much of what opera houses, in the U.S. at least, stage on a regular basis. It's a uniquely American object, on American themes.

It is also one of those operas like Die tote Stadt that seems to exist in only one production at a time, which travels around until everyone is tired of it and then a new one surfaces somewhere, which again travels around the country and world for years and years. Porgy and Bess arrives in San Francisco in the same Francesca Zambello staging seen everywhere including L.A. a few years back. It’s updated to the 1950s, and can be attractive with its dilapidated corrugated steel scaffolding. It’s still pretty static, but it’s far from Zambello’s most irritating work. The curtain with its Rauschenberg-inspired clippings of the New York skyline and parts of faces is brilliant. Luckily, the audience on the final performance in the run, which I saw last night, got a bonus 10 minutes or so to look at it when Porgy, played by Eric Owens, became “indisposed” for heath reasons and the show was stalled during Act I. He returned, though, after being treated by a doctor, we were told, and frankly from my seat seemed no worse for the wear.

Owens sounds fantastic. He’s big and clear in voice. If you want evidence that he’s ready to headline bigger fare around the world, here it is – come and get him. Laquita Mitchell sang a touching Bess with marked athleticism. She was into it and could provide the physicality to carry off the show. I was also particularly enamored with Chauncey Packer's portrayal of Sportin’ Life. He had a real magnetism on the stage and was solid vocally. An old hand at this work, John DeMain was in the pit and the orchestra sounded strong. The chorus also sounded good tonight even if they could have used a bit more stage direction at times. But this was a final performance, and things can lose their edge at this point in many runs. I think the show could take a bit more of an aggressive stance towards its material, however. As it is, this Porgy and Bess is watchable, but nothing that would make you sit up and take notice of the strife and drama on stage. Or at least do so long enough to break up the conversation and romance between you and your date.


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