In “Porgy and Bess” American composer George Gershwin assembles musical snapshots that capture the teeming life of Charleston’s rundown Catfish Row and its black inhabitants in the early 1930s. Princeton Festival’s production of the opera in McCarter’s Matthews Theater on Sunday, June 22, made the audience part of the community. Those who attended could share its neighborliness and animosities, its heartaches and violence, its religious bent and the calls of its street vendors. Overbearing and bullying white police were also depicted, as well as one sympathetic white.
No matter the milieu, the broken hopes, or injustices, the festival’s production generated a packed house that responded with an overwhelming ovation.
The only live opera in the region this summer, “Porgy and Bess” repeats Friday, June 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 29, at 3 p.m. The fully staged performance is the centerpiece of Princeton Festival’s 10th season, which began on June 7 and will conclude with this production as well as the Saturday, June 28, Keystone State Boychoir (7:30 p.m., Trinity Church, Princeton).
Conductor Richard Tang Yuk, artistic director of the Princeton Festival, and director Steven La Cosse, veteran of Princeton Festival productions, eased the audience into the opera’s locale one step at a time. With the curtain down, percussive sounds awakened the ears. Then, as the curtain rose, couples swaying to an inaudible honky-tonk piano on stage became visible. An unseen chorus chanted syllables, not words. Finally, an instrumental melody was played, and the dancing took off in earnest. (Graham Lustig was the imaginative choreographer.)
The main characters — originally appearing in the novel “Porgy” by DuBose Heyward, who created the opera’s libretto and co-wrote the lyrics with Ira Gershwin — are an unlikely couple. Porgy (sung with intensity by Richard Todd Payne) is a crippled beggar, dependent on a crutch in the Princeton Festival version. His strength of character, his determination, and his compassion are appealing. So is his naivete: someone has to tell him that New York is 1,000 miles from Charleston.
Bess (sung by the versatile Janinah Burnett) has a tendency to fall for undesirable men and remain loyal to them. Early in the opera, she is described as “a liquor-guzzling slut.” Porgy senses her need for protection. Bess’ soft heart emerges musically when she sings “Summertime” near the end of the opera.
It is easy to experience a glow of recognition as “Porgy’s” songs unfold. They have become so much a part of the American songscape that they seem to have always existed, rather than having been composed. Shortly after the curtain goes up, Clara (Brandie Sutton) soothes her baby by singing “Summertime.” Suddenly, during the course of the opera, one re-encounters “I’ve Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” the good-tempered philosophy sung compellingly by Porgy (Richard Todd Payne); “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by the cynical Sportin’ Life (Robert Mack); and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” Porgy and Bess’s love song.
Princeton Festival’s “Porgy” is a large-scale production with more than 70 singers and a full orchestra. The performance, with two intermissions, takes almost four hours, about as long as the original version of “Porgy.” Shortened versions of the opera have appeared as movies and on Broadway. The briefest version was a one-hour live radio broadcast on WOR in 1942.
The stellar Princeton Festival cast includes almost 20 principal singers and two choruses. Principal singers were invariably excellent. Their credits, noted in the program, match the outstanding quality of their performance. Choruses became virtually a character in the opera because of their role in the structure of the piece. Emotional a cappella chorus sections infused a “gospel” quality into the performance.
The design team contributed seamlessly to the effectiveness of the production. Lighting designer Norman Coates created various times of day and a dangerous electrical storm. Set designer John Farrell turned the McCarter stage into a street in a ramshackle village as well as a cool-blue water’s edge. Costume designer Marie Miller arranged for characters to wear the varied fashionless clothing of the slums, except for Sportin’ Life (Robert Mack) who turned up in a slick urban suit and hat.
Interesting aside, the adult chorus of 40 professionals was joined by a 12-person ensemble from the Trenton Children’s Chorus. The children’s chorus meets twice a week after school. With more than 100 participants, from kindergarten through 12th grade, its mission is “to empower the academic, social, and spiritual lives of children through artistry in music.” Scipio (Trenton Chorus member Tobias Richardson) was singled out for credit in the program. Dawn Golding was children’s chorus master. Gail Blache-Gill was chorus master of the adult chorus.
Porgy and Bess, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, June 27, 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 29, 3 p.m. $30 to $140. www.princetonfestival.org or 609 258-2787.