Almost 80 years after its composition, George Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess finally made it to the stage of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in a performance by the Opéra de Montréal that confirmed the piece as Gershwin’s ultimate masterpiece and one of the major works of the 20th century.

Chantale Nurse © Yves Renaud
Chantale Nurse
© Yves Renaud

Porgy and Bess was initially criticised in some quarters as reinforcing cultural and Afro-American stereotypes and of representing a white man’s perception of black culture. Duke Ellington wrote that “Gershwin’s folk opera fails to fully understand the ‘Negro idiom’,” while author Harold Cruse stated that the work “belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African American should want to see it, or be seen in it”. Even Grace Bumbry, who was born the year Gershwin died and played Bess at the Metropolitan in 1985, said: “I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana”. In the last 40 years it has not only been revealed as a great American opera but an innovative work of art.

The work, like the composer himself, contains a myriad of influences, from Tin Pan Alley jazz to Gospel and Negro spirituals by way of Gershwin’s Jewish roots. The libretto, based on a novel by DuBose Heyward, was co-created by the author and Gershwin’s brother, Ira. It traces the evolution of the tortured relationship between the crippled beggar Porgy and Bess, a sometime companion to the brutish Crown. The action is set in the black South Carolina community of Catfish Row in the 1920s.

As Gershwin intended, the work was here performed by an (almost) black cast. The Opéra de Montréal had engaged the famed Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir to add an element of authenticity to proceedings. The amateur choir not only brought the required authenticity but a thoroughly professional attitude, physical implication and conviction as well as a concerted and natural vocalism that was the basis for the evening’s success. What their collective sound lacked in refinement, was made up for in sheer commitment and pertinence.

Measha Brueggergosman & Kenneth Overton © Yves Renaud
Measha Brueggergosman & Kenneth Overton
© Yves Renaud
The opera’s large cast was, almost inevitably, uneven. Kenneth Overton as Porgy captured the character’s layered dimensions with striking perception and brought superior acting skills and generosity of spirit to the role. He displayed a soft-grained and attractive voice that became opaque in the upper register and that was found wanting only in the most dramatic moments of the demanding score. He was particularly impressive in the pivotal duets with Bess (“Bess, you is my woman now” and “I loves you, Porgy”). His Bess, Canadian soprano Measha Bruggergosman, offered a frustratingly uneven performance. Her charismatic presence, vocal power and opulence (as in the duet with Crown) were too often counterbalanced and offset by histrionic excess and vocal issues (uneven production and a squally, spread top). She almost always succeeded in making a virtue out of her vices yet ultimately the character’s motivation, her complex and simultaneously contrasting reaction to Porgy’s tender love and her addiction to drugs, and Crown’s elemental power over her, remained largely unexplored.

The supporting cast displayed varied qualities and shortcomings. Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life demonstrated a truly compelling stage presence but was vocally unattractive, while local favourite Marie-Josée Lord as Serena, displayed much vocal beauty but was dramatically less consistently convincing. Chantale Nurse as Clara sang the score’s most famous excerpt “Summertime” disappointingly, while her husband Jake was brilliantly portrayed by Michael Princely, who conveyed vocal richness and considerable acting skills – as did Catherine Maria Daniel as Maria. Among minor roles, mention must be made of Justin Welsh as the “lawyer man” Frazier, and Cécile Muhire as the Strawberry woman. The admirable Lester Lynch revealed Crown’s violent power and malevolence, characteristics that director Lemuel Wade chose to underscore at the expense of the character’s overall complexity.

Marie-Josée Lord © Yves Renaud
Marie-Josée Lord
© Yves Renaud

Working within the production’s physical limitations, more specifically an imposing but ungainly set that limited both dramatic comprehension and emotional responses, Wade failed to offer more than a linear and superficial vision of the work. He was not aided by Anne-Caterine Simard-Deraspe’s uninspiring and unilluminating lighting but a little more by Wayne Marshall’s conducting. In a somewhat hesitant and seemingly under-rehearsed performance, Marshall gently guided members of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in an interpretation that lacked leadership, tonal balance and a certain sense of dramatic direction and musical clarity.

The production’s minor failings and weaknesses could not negate the power and emotion of the work, nor its ability to capture the hearts and minds of the audience. The explosion of enthusiastic applause that greeted the cast, as the final curtain fell on a moving night of music theatre, can be seen as a vindication of Gershwin’s masterpiece.

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