Francesca Zambello has done so much over the years to lower the artificial barriers between “high” and “low” culture, between the operatic genre and Broadway musicals, that it is actually surprising that it took her so long to adapt her well-travelled production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for Glimmerglass’ smaller sized stage.

Talise Trevigne (Bess) and Musa Ngqungwana (Porgy) © Karli Cadel
Talise Trevigne (Bess) and Musa Ngqungwana (Porgy)
© Karli Cadel

During a sold-out Saturday night performance, an admiring public acknowledged the director’s ability to juggle with many simultaneously happening details while keeping an alert pace and focusing on the essential. The staging reuses Peter J. Davison’s scenic design where librettist Dubose Heyward’s Catfish Row is a corrugated steel structure with sliding doors that looks more like a ready to be abandoned prison than a Gullah community environment in Charleston, South Carolina.

For decades, after opening on Broadway in 1935, Porgy and Bess was more talked about then staged. Even if its wonderful songs became popular, any attempt to revive the opera fell victim to an overall perception of the work being an example of Uncle Tomism. A landmark 1976 production at the Houston Grand Opera ignited a new interest in Gershwin’s opus. Remarkably, John DeMain, who conducted those Houston performances and hundreds of others since, is leading from the pit this Glimmerglass revival. His familiarity with the score was easily appreciated from the first measures of the overture, where strings are joined by screeching brass and the unusual sounds of a xylophone. Conducting a confident Glimmerglass Orchestra, DeMain brought forward the exceptional quality of Gershwin’s writing, the composer's ability to absorb and seamlessly blend together the vernacular of American blues, spirituals, gospel and jazz music with the rigors of operatic form and elements of 20th-century European modernism. He clearly underlined Gershwin’s use of leitmotifs, representing individual characters – such as Porgy or the malevolent Sportin’ Life – objects – the “happy dust” – or places – Catfish Row itself. In one of the evening’s high points, DeMain vigorously sustained the complex six voices contrapuntal writing at the height of the hurricane scene. There were other remarkable orchestral moments: the solo horn over strings during Beth’s farewell scene or the brass fugal underlining of the first act’s fighting. More than anything else though, DeMain helped a valuable vocal cast shine through the entire performance.

Musa Ngqungwana (Porgy) © Karli Cadel
Musa Ngqungwana (Porgy)
© Karli Cadel

Glimmerglass is renowned for its vocal training and most of the singers were current members or alumni of Glimmerglass’ Young Artists Program. If one needs a quick example of the quality of the training offered, two cameo appearances would suffice: soprano Jasmin White was extraordinary as the Strawberry Woman and tenor Chaz’men William-Ali, also interpreting the ill-fated Robbins, was as outstanding as the other peddler, the Crab Man. The evening was almost stolen by Simone Z. Paulwell who brought her authoritative and mellifluous soprano voice to the role of Serena. The intensity with which she rendered the aria “My man’s gone now”, a lament for Robbins, her murdered husband, demonstrated that Paulwell is ready to tackle many significant roles of the operatic repertoire. The opera’s most famous tune, Clara’s “Summertime”, was heartfeltly sung by soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb on two separate instances, but her delivery partially lacked the simplicity and directness associated with a lullaby.

Meroë Khalia Adeeb © Karli Cadel
Meroë Khalia Adeeb
© Karli Cadel

In the role of Jake, Clara's husband, baritone Justin Austin was a correct but not very convincing interpreter of “A woman is a sometime thing”. Contralto Judith Skinner was a powerfully intransigent Maria. Frederick Ballentine, moving around with oily slickness, portrayed Sportin’ Life’s cunning character, but less so his ability to provide Mephistophelian judgements about human weakness. His voice was on the thin side in the well-known “It ain’t necessarily so”. Baritone Norman Garrett was fully credible as Crown, the other malefic character in Bess’ life. Scary and exulting dark confidence, he justified the sway Crown held over her. Talise Trevigne is a well-established soprano. Her voice has a rich lyric quality and she easily negotiated the soaring lines that Gershwin assigned to Bess, the bad girl incapable of redeeming herself through love. She didn’t fully bring out though the character’s psychological frailty, her conflicting feelings and visceral reactions. Moving credibly around with a crutch, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana demonstrated a clear command of the dramatic demands he faced as Porgy. The South African singer portrayed the character’s modesty, dignity and inner strength well. Ngqungwana’s lacks the smooth legato of a true basso cantante, but he sang with nonchalance and a warm, gritty vibrato the entire evening, especially Porgy signature aria “I got plenty o’ nuttin’”.

Talise Trevigne (Bess) and Norman Garrett (Crown) © Karli Cadel
Talise Trevigne (Bess) and Norman Garrett (Crown)
© Karli Cadel

An overall theatrical and musical success, Glimmerglass’ Porgy and Bess proves one more time that Gershwin’s opus remains America’s most important 20th-century opera.