It's been a little while since I sat down and reviewed an opera or play I saw and I thought it was about time I started doing that again. I'm a subscriber at the Washington National Opera and last night I saw the opening of its production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Now before I go ahead and trash the performance I will be upfront about my biases going into the performance:
- I don't like Gershwin. Really not at all.
- Opera should not be sung in English. It just shouldn't be. Like Mass should always be said in Latin, opera should be sung in European languages (specifically Italian, German, French and on the occasion, Russian)
- It's possible that my seats in the fourth row back and to stage left have some sort of weird bubble preventing sound penetration.
- I don't like Gershwin (it's worth saying twice).
The chorus was excellent, usually the WNO does manage to get at least that much correct. There were a lot of really good (especially female) voices in there. Also brilliant were Eric Owens as Porgy who had a powerful voice and the sweetest face; Lisa Daltrius as Serena whom I would like to hear sing something else-she had an amazing voice that got lost in the ofttimes discordant music; and Eric Greene as Jake. Native Washingtonian Alyson Cambridge (who is stunning btw) was...good. Could not really hear her very well (number 3 above) and I did not care for her vibrato. Sounds like that will become a tremolo sooner than later. Morenike Fadayomi as Bess had some very nice notes. Yeah that's about all I've got for her. Although I don't know, maybe it's really difficult to sign while you're being an alcoholic hyped up on coke. I just don't know.
My absolute favorite part of the entire opera? One of the supernumeraries. The most adorable little girl on earth who must have been about three or four years old. There's a scene in opera in which everyone is marching around and she was the most enthusiastic little marcher I have ever seen. She did not reappear after the intermission, I would guess because it was well past her bedtime, and I sorely missed her.
I would say that the majority of the bad I lay at Gershwin's feet. Anything that is 2.5 hours long (3 hours when you throw in the WNO's 25 minute intermission) should be worth the entire 2.5 hours. The scene with the woman selling strawberries and the guy selling the crabs? What was that?! That's like 3 minutes that I will never have back. Also true to opera written during this period, there was some dissonance and a lot of talking. Like actual talking, not just recitative. I really did not think you could call something opera when there is talking and that is usually what knocks it down to an operette or a musical? Where's my mom with these answers when I need them? And what the heck was that ending? That was the hands down stupidest ending I have ever seen.
The most egregious badness in this production falls on the WNO's head for bad casting. Jermaine Smith as Sportin' Life. I do not know what he sounds like in other productions he's in but if his performance last night was truly indicative then he should never be aloud to sing in public. Ever again. Ever. It seemed to me that the WNO sacrificed someone who could sing for someone who could do a little soft shoe. Although I don't know, maybe Gershwin meant for this character to not be able to sing. I would not put such a thing past someone who included three minutes about strawberries and crabs that was completely superfluous to the plot. Although to Mr. Smith's credit, he portrayed the character quite well and very much disliked and was creeped out by him.
The opera was excellently acted which is not always a given with WNO casts. But with the actors sometimes sacrificing singing for the sake of acting, KMac and I wonder if Porgy and Bess wouldn't be better off as a musical. One of those musicals that is mostly talking with like 3 or 4 songs. Short songs.