Bess Bets

Sweet Sorrow: Alvy Powell, center, as Porgy, with Adina Aaron and David Aron Demane in Porgy and Bess.Photo: Carol Rosegg

No one now seriously disputes the fact that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess rightfully belongs in the opera house, and the City Opera’s marvelous production proves it. Porgy was first performed in 1935 disguised as a Broadway musical, creating a false impression right from the start, and it’s taken more than 50 years to shake off the stigma. Even when new, this music responded best to operatic voices, and in that respect alone the City Opera’s opening cast, the first of three for this run, would be hard to beat. Everyone onstage is immersed in the piece and feels comfortable with it, dramatically as well as musically. Not only have genre prejudices been overcome, but apparently the work’s humanity has also won over critics once troubled by ethnic stereotyping.

Many of this production’s basic elements, like Douglas W. Schmidt’s atmospheric designs for Catfish Row’s tenements, come straight from past outings, but Tazewell Thompson’s direction is more recent, and it brings a fresh, urgent spirit of theatricality to the piece. Like Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Porgy and Bess is an opera about a community as much as it is about the individuals who live in it, and Thompson is careful to show us exactly how the social dynamics work. The stage is constantly alive with the details of everyday life, but nothing looks fussy or threatens to interfere with the personalities who dominate the action. Each character, in fact, develops in fascinating ways that are likely to surprise even those who know the opera well.

Bess, for example, emerges as a heartbreakingly tragic figure, a woman who is continually at war with her finest instincts and is finally destroyed by her lack of self-respect. Marquita Lister explores this side of Bess with frightening specificity even as she gives the notes full musical value and sings them gloriously. Timothy Robert Blevins is also perfect as the villainous Crown, a complete performance bursting with an athleticism and sexual energy that never compromise the superior quality of his voice. Porgy must be one of the longest and most physically demanding roles in the repertory, and Alvy Powell meets the challenge eloquently despite occasional traces of vocal strain. The rest of the singers are vividly in the picture, and they are expertly guided by John DeMain, a skilled Porgy and Bess conductor who never seems to tire of making its miracles happen.

he City Opera’s new Don Giovanni is the sort of timid production that would probably be lustily booed if encountered today in Germany, where all repertory pieces are subject to intense reexamination and radical reinterpretation. I’m not endorsing that philosophy, but Thor Steingraber’s routine direction of Mozart’s classic at the State Theater is so dull that one wonders if he has any point of view about the piece at all. The basic blocking is at least efficient, but some of the work’s more problematic scenes fall flat, while the characters, as ambiguous and troubling as any that opera has to offer, never come to life.

The drab unit set designed by Riccardo Hernández isn’t much help, even if David C. Woolard’s costumes do suggest a specific time (eighteenth century) and place (Spain). Three doors with classical molding dominate the stage, although it is never entirely clear where they lead to, and the skimpy background drops are more of a distraction than an adornment. There’s no place to hide in this bald Don Giovanni, an opera in which most everyone dons a disguise at one time or another. No wonder the frantic romps during the Act One finale and Act Two sextet come off as disheveled and theatrically ineffective.

The dreary physical aspects of this Don Giovanni are not so inhibiting that an exceptional cast could not make one or two effective vocal points, and the singers in the opening performance, under the alert musical direction of George Manahan, did their best. I especially enjoyed Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Anna. Perhaps her disciplined soprano is rather small-scaled for this formidable avenging spirit, but her energy and technical élan more than make up for that. Amy Burton’s vulnerable Elvira is not far behind in vocal quality, while Mariateresa Magisano phrases Zerlina’s arias deliciously, even if she never quite finds the emotional center of this lovable character. The men also sing with distinction, but Peter Coleman-Wright (Giovanni), Nathan Berg (Leporello), Raul Hernandez (Ottavio), and Kevin Burdette (Masetto) are even less in the picture than their girlfriends.

After many years away, Parade is back at the Metropolitan Opera, an ingenious grouping of three short French theater pieces by kindred musical spirits: Satie’s Parade, Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. The whole idea was one of the late John Dexter’s happiest inspirations as the Met’s director of productions. I wonder if anyone else would have had the imagination to notice these works’ common theme – the wonder of childhood against a background of war – or to stage them so cleverly within the context of David Hockney’s painterly sets. Back in 1981, when this triple bill was new and the Met a more conservative place than it is today, such an original evening of opera was a positive tonic.

That said, I find the current revival disappointing. As redirected by Max Charruyer, the staging lacks flavor and wit, with all the zany absurdity drained from the Poulenc romp and the magical Ravel fantasy made to look positively disorganized. The casting may contribute to the overall flat impression – certainly Ainhoa Arteta as Poulenc’s Thérèse, opera’s first transsexual, projects none of the role’s comic edge or vocal éclat. Nor do the singing animals and inanimate objects in the Ravel radiate much charm or sparkle. Most damaging of all, James Levine, conducting these works for the first time at the Met, shows no affinity for the music. Style, comic timing, and rhythmic propulsion are all missing from orchestral playing that is mostly lethargic and characterless. How sad that the Met had to spoil such a happy memory.

Porgy and Bess
The opera by George and Ira Gershwin, conducted by John DeMain, at the City Opera.
Don Giovanni
The opera by Mozart, conducted by George Manahan at the City Opera.
Three short operas by Satie, Poulenc, and Ravel, conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera.

Bess Bets