31 January 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (L. Cesaroni, S. Quinn, L. Hernandez, S. Kessler Dooley, A. Lau, T. Murray, D. Hartmann, W. Henderson, J. Cortes, F. Bunter; North Carolina Opera, 28 January 2022)

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Alcindoro (center) and the company of North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeLucia Cesaroni (Mimì), Scott Quinn (Rodolfo), Shannon Kessler Dooley (Musetta), Levi Hernandez (Marcello), Timothy Murray (Schaunard), Adam Lau (Colline), Donald Hartmann (Benoît, Alcindoro), Wade Henderson (Parpignol), Jacob Cortes (Un sergente dei doganieri), Forrest Bunter (Un doganiere); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joseph Mechavich, conductor [Brenna Corner, Stage Director; Steven C. Kemp, Set Designer; Ross Kolman, Lighting Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designer; North Carolina Opera, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 28 January 2022]

When opera companies announce seasons that include productions of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, some observers disgustedly ask, ‘Why do they choose to again perform La bohème?’ The answer to that question is very simple: audiences buy tickets for performances of La bohème. Paralleling Abraham Lincoln’s famed remark about the uncertainties of politicians deceiving their constituents, La bohème will never lure all potential patrons to every performances, but some aficionados would never purposefully miss a staging of the piece, while virtually all operaphiles can sometimes be coaxed by the participation of a favored singer or conductor into attending a performance of La bohème. Why, then, does Puccini’s adaptation of Henri Murger’s 1851 tome Scènes de la vie de bohème continue to appeal so strongly to audiences 126 years after the opera’s première at Teatro Regio di Torino? Luigi Illica’s and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto is irrefutably a work of theatrical savvy, but would even the most dedicated poet allege that purchasing an opera ticket is motivated by a desire to extol the words? What inspires audiences’ faith in La bohème’s capacity to satisfy, whether it is being experienced for the second or the seventieth time?

North Carolina Opera’s new production of La bohème, the first staging of the opera in Raleigh since 2014, offered persuasive answers to these questions, presenting the opera with unapologetic but unexaggerated sentimentality that gave new life to the opera’s familiar tragedy. Steven C. Kemp’s set designs placed Puccini’s bohemians in recognizably Parisian surroundings without subjecting them to fairy-tale over-romanticisation and anachronistic views of well-known landmarks. The costumes, originally created for Sarasota Opera, and Martha Ruskai’s astute wig and makeup designs also suited the people who wore them, physically and dramatically, attractively reflecting the era in which the opera is set but illustrating the poverty with which Puccini’s protagonists contend. In Ross Kolman’s lighting, the frigid garret and the streets of Paris, teeming with holiday revelry in Act Two and slowly awakening in Act Three, glowed with natural ambience, in which spotlighting enabled the audience to easily follow the opera’s narrative. This production contradicted the notion that traditional stagings unfailingly lack imagination and novelty. The opera’s extensive performance history demonstrates that La bohème can succeed in many guises. Rather than inventing new contexts for the librettists’ adaptation of Murger’s story, this Bohème satisfied by lifting the characters directly from the pages of Puccini’s score.

An abundance of small but significant details distinguished Brenna Corner’s direction of this production, her concentration on interactions amongst characters and their environment deployed with subtlety and intelligence. Marcello observing that the handkerchief dropped by Mimį after a coughing fit in Act Three was stained with blood was a poignant sign of the direness of her illness, and the simple act of Colline extinguishing a candle as Schaunard perceived that Mimì was dead symbolized the darkness that descended upon the bohemians’ community with the loss of Mimì. Starkly effective, too, was the muffler, only recently procured by Musetta and given in Rodolfo’s name, falling with wrenching finality from Mimì’s lifeless hands. Corner delivered the expected tumult in Act Two but avoided the frenetic business of productions like Franco Zeffirelli’s famed staging for the Metropolitan Opera, in which individual characters can be lost in the hubbub. Corner’s work was shaped by intuitive musicality, her creativity spurred by the score.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor SCOTT QUINN as Rdolfo, baritone LEVI HERNANDEZ as Marcello, bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Benoît, baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Schaunard, and bass ADAM LAU as Colline in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Ecco il padrone: (from left to right) tenor Scott Quinn as Rodolfo, baritone Levi Hernandez as Marcello, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Benoît, baritone Timothy Murray as Schaunard, and bass Adam Lau as Colline in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Sadly, conductor Joseph Mechavich’s comprehensive knowledge of and respect for Puccini’s music qualities that were manifested in every bar of the performance, were undermined by orchestral playing that lacked both accuracy and polish. Singers’ timing was frequently disrupted by mistakes from the pit, two of the most regrettable of which were incorrect entries by the harp that spoiled the atmosphere in Mimì’s Act One aria and her subsequent duet with Rodolfo. The coordination between stage and pit disintegrated markedly as Act Two progressed, the ensemble of children’s voices, chorus, and principals making its customary effect despite nearly devolving into chaos. Nevertheless, moments of beauty, accuracy, and true dramatic power were bountiful. Winter weather having wreaked havoc during the production’s rehearsal period, Mechavich achieved much with limited time with the singers and orchestra, his expansive reading of the score accentuating intricacies of Puccini’s orchestrations that are often inaudible. Despite the disfiguring errors from his colleagues in the pit, Mechavich supported the singers ably, enabling them to immerse themselves in their characters’ struggles without struggling to be heard.

Both the adults of North Carolina Opera’s Chorus, directed by Scott McacLeod, and the Children’s Chorus, trained by Lauren Saeger, contributed sonorously to Act Two’s festivities. The orchestra pit’s misfortunes adversely affected the choral singing, undoubtedly confusing the singers in some passages, but the choristers’ professionalism prevailed. The youngsters pursued Parpignol and his cartload of toys with restless excitement and were themselves pursued with whimsical exasperation by their adult counterparts. As the working folk who come to Paris in Act Three in order to peddle their wares on the city’s snowy streets, first the gentlemen and then the ladies of the chorus sang vividly. More so than in many productions, the choristers were here participants in and not merely observers of the opera’s drama.

The customs officer and his sergeant who guard the city gate in Act Two—or do so when not distracted, as in this production, by the female patrons of the nearby tavern—wer​e galantly portrayed by Forrest Bunter and Jacob Cortes. A familiar participant in North Carolina Opera productions, Wade Henderson sang Parpignol’s lines exuberantly, but the tenor’s voice lacked its typical clarity and brightness.

An unexpected knock at the bohemians’ door in Act One announced an impromptu visit from the landlord Benoît, demanding remittance for his tenants’ unpaid rent. Unwelcome as the intrusion is to the destitute bohemians, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s entrance delighted the audience, who responded to his faultless comic adroitness and firm, forceful singing, all too rare in the rôles that he sang in this production, with uninhibited mirth. Hartmann sang ‘A lei ne vengo’ with deadpan hilarity, and his disdainful, almost disgusted exclamation of ‘mia moglie,’ prompting the bohemians’ feigned censure, was lobbed like a grenade. As Musetta’s deep-pocketed suitor Alcindoro in Act Two, Hartmann was an unusually debonair figure, a fitting companion for the glamorous coquette. Exemplified by a brilliantly-timed ‘Dove?’ in response to Musetta’s sham cries of pain, his singing of Alcindoro’s music—and, indeed, he sang rather than shouting the part—recalled the performances of Salvatore Baccaloni and Pompilio Malatesta, the preeminent Alcindori of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In both rôles, Hartmann was funny without being embarrassingly farcical, relying upon Puccini’s music to provide the characters’ comedic impetus.

IN REVIEW: baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Schaunard in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Prima la musica: baritone Timothy Murray as Schaunard in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

The musician Schaunard needs a more opulent voice than he receives in many productions. North Carolina Opera entrusted the rôle to baritone Timothy Murray, whose performance drew Schaunard from the background, where he sometimes hides in the shadows of his fellow bohemians. This Schaunard’s gleeful arrival in Act One, bearing the much-fêted products of his labors, lifted the spirits of his friends and those of their audience, the scene enlivened by Murray’s engaging vocal and theatrical presence. He relayed Schaunard’s tale of the frazzled Englishman and his noisy avian neighbor with droll humor and a rousing top F, his exclamation of mock annoyance at his ravenous comrades’ inattention revealing endearing playfulness. Always discernible in ensembles, Murray’s vocalism exuded conviviality in Act Two, but it was in the opera’s final act that Murray’s portrayal was most admirable. Jesting with his friends, this Schaunard was charmingly boyish, but Musetta’s entrance with news of Mimì’s decline shattered his illusion of happiness. The tenderness with which he caressed the dying Mimì’s hand was affectingly poignant. His demeanor suggested that Murray’s Schaunard sensed that Mimì’s death was inevitable, but finding that she had quietly expired devastated him. Murray sang splendidly throughout the evening, and his acting fully explored the emotional depth of Puccini’s music for the part.

IN REVIEW: bass ADAM LAU as Colline in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]La sua filosofia è la compassione: bass Adam Lau as Colline in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

A wily Leporello and a powerhouse Don Basilio in North Carolina Opera’s productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2015) and Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (2016), bass Adam Lau returned to Raleigh to philosophize benevolently as Colline in La bohème. Like Murray’s Schaunard, Lau’s Colline made a galvanizing entrance in Act One, the voice full and formidable throughout the range. His unkempt ‘fur’ tamed by a barber’s razor in Act Two, Lau’s Colline solemnly accepted Mimì into the bohemians’ society and bemusedly analyzed Marcello’s sparring with Musetta. When the friends’ horseplay was halted by impending tragedy in Act Four, Lau touchingly limned the crumbling of Colline’s stoicism. The bass sang ‘Vecchia zimara, senti, io resto al pian’ with disarming directness, approaching the piece not as an ode to a grand gesture but as an ordinary man’s selfless attempt at providing comfort. Lau projected his voice and his characterization without pushing the former or overplaying the latter, guilelessly amplifying the rôle’s humanity.

IN REVIEW: soprano SHANNON KESSLER DOOLEY as Musetta in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]La voce della libertà: soprano Shannon Kessler Dooley as Musetta in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

The rôle of the capricious Musetta was created by Camilla Pasini, a versatile singer whose repertoire included both Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin. In the Puccini canon, she also sang Tosca, inaugurating a lineage perpetuated in North Carolina Opera’s production by soprano Shannon Kessler Dooley. Her Musetta’s charisma surged onto the stage like an aural avalanche in Act Two, her entrance on Alcindoro’s arm eliciting as much awe from the Raleigh audience as from Puccini’s starstruck Parisians. Her toying with Marcello was spiteful but never malevolent. Dooley voiced ‘Quando me’n vo soletta per la vita’ fantastically, executing a resplendent subito piano on one of the aria’s climatic top Bs. Triumphantly adding the bill for the bohenians’ feast to Alcindoro’s tab at the end of the act and querulously quarreling with Marcello in Act Three, Dooley’s Musetta sang with élan, commanding the stage with insouciant panache.

More profound dimensions of Musetta’s character emerged in Act Four with her realization that Mimì’s life was rapidly waning. Dooley uttered ‘C’è Mimi che mi segue e che sta male’ and ‘Intesi dire che Mimì, fuggita dal viscontino’ urgently, heightening the bohemians’ and the audience’s awareness of the severity of Mimì’s condition. The expressivity of the soprano’s voicing of ‘Forse è l'ultima volta che ha espresso un desiderio​’ was very moving, the voice imparting the breadth of Musetta’s affection for Mimì. Dooley was untroubled by the low tessitura of the prayer,‘Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta,’ singing the plea for divine mercy fervently. Her chic elegance notwithstanding, this Musetta was as integral a part of the bohemians’ community as Mimì, and Dooley sang her music accordingly.

IN REVIEW: baritone LEVI HERNANDEZ as Marcello in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]La vita è la sua tela: baritone Levi Hernandez as Marcello in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Baritone Levi Hernandez was a Marcello whose abiding sincerity overcame orchestral misfires and vocal obstacles. His singing of ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce assidera’ in the opera’s opening scene disclosed the effervescence of Hernandez’s concept of the part, and his interplay with Rodolfo, Colline, and Schaunard in Act One evinced Marcello’s reliance upon the support of his friends to brave loneliness and deprivation. As Mimì discerned, the vehemence of this Marcello’s denunciations of Musetta in Act Two proclaimed that his contemptuous indifference was an ineffective defense mechanism. Hernandez catapulted Marcello’s recapitulation of the famed waltz tune and his bellow of ‘mia sirena!’ into the theater with the ardor of rekindled passion.

In the scene before the tavern in Act Three, Marcello’s fraternal love for Mimī softened the iron core of Hernandez’s vocalism. Even when begging her to leave without making a scene, there was no harshness in the voice. Rodolfo’s subsequent cataloguing of Mimì’s alleged failings restored the steely edge in the baritone’s singing, Marcello’s rebuke of his friend’s dishonesty unsparing but not unkind. Hernandez conveyed an unnerving feeling of powerlessness as Rodolfo recounted the truth of Mimì’s growing frailty, the painter’s ire tinged with relief when Musetta’s laughter was heard from within the tavern. The vitriol of his fight with Musetta was transformed into longing of equal intensity in the duet with Rodolfo in Act Four. Hernandez articulated Marcello’s lines in the final scene with vulnerability, the wearied artist humbled by Musetta’s kindness and dismayed by Mimì’s death. Marcello’s tessitura is centered slightly higher than Hernandez’s vocal comfort zone, but he sang potently and pensively, using every moment of stress to embody the character’s anguish.

IN REVIEW: soprano LUCIA CESARONI as Mimì (left) and tenor SCOTT QUINN as Rodolfo (right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Il poeta e la poesia: soprano Lucia Cesaroni as Mimì (left) and tenor Scott Quinn as Rodolfo (right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Tenor Scott Quinn was an earnest, hardworking Rodolfo whose impressive upper register was betrayed to some extent by inconsistent resonance in the bottom octave. Alongside Hernandez, Lau, and Murray, Quinn was a subdued actor, his Rodolfo seeming more lost in a daydream than experiencing the opera’s drama. Still, Quinn sang ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille’ and all of his music in Act One capably and at time thrillingly, his account of ‘Che gelida manina,’ transposed downward, building to a reverberant summit. He began ‘O soave fanciulla’ with apt wonder, rising ecstatically to the unison top As but adhering to Puccini’s intentions by eschewing the oft-interpolated top C at the duet’s close. The musical and theatrical challenges of Act Two were met with similar commitment, his straightforward singing of ‘Dal mio cervel sbocciano i canti’ and the beguiling phrase ‘son io il poeta, essa la poesia’ avoiding emotional excess. A sinister aspect of Rodolfo’s psyche was glimpsed in his warning to Mimì about his jealousy, enunciated by Quinn with disconcerting matter-of-factness.

The buoyancy of Quinn’s singing in the opera’s opening scene returned with his voicing of ‘Marcello, finalmente!’ in Act Three, but the nonchalance was short-lived. Bitterness darkened his articulations of ‘Già un’altra volta credetti morto il mio cor’ and ‘Mimì è una civetta,’ giving way to open-hearted despair in ‘Invan nascondo la mia vera tortura’ and especially ‘Mimì è tanto malata.’ The tenor’s best singing of the evening was heard in the scene with Mimì, who, shaken by overhearing Rodolfo’s assessment of her worsening health, resolves to leave him. Here, Quinn’s technique enabled him to sing sotto voce passages with finesse. Again in Act Four, initial ribaldry was replaced first by wistful regret in the duet with Marcello and then by abject sorrow in the final moments with Mimì. Rodolfo’s grief was all the more piercing for being expressed without sobs and distortions of the vocal line, completing a portrayal molded by music, not histrionics.

IN REVIEW: soprano LUCIA CESARONI as Mimì in North Carolina Opera's January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]Lucia, la portatrice di luce: soprano Lucia Cesaroni as Mimì in North Carolina Opera’s January 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph © by Eric Waters Photography]

Her timbre often reminiscent of the voice of Rosanna Carteri, soprano Lucia Cesaroni sang Mimì’s music with consistent security and tonal beauty. From her first ‘Scusi’ in Act One, she brought to her performance gladdening vestiges of long-dormant styles, integrated with her own sensibilities and vocal persona. Recalling Licia Albanese, this Mimì’s first words to Rodolfo disclosed awkward excitement tempered by unassailable propriety. Cesaroni sang ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ gorgeously, her top As ideally lofted on the breath, and, crucially, she offered Rodolfo and the audience a look into Mimì’s solitary but fulfilling world. The shrewdness of her artistry was apparent in her suggestive but shy voicing of the single word ‘curioso’ in the duet with Rodolfo, in which she ended Act One with a dulcet top C. Central to Cesaroni’s portrayal of Mimì in Act Two was a palpable awareness of belonging, the thoughtful young woman having found a place among people who appreciated and embraced her. She sang ‘Una cuffetta a pizzi’ with girlish elation, and the emotions that overtook Mimì as the act progressed—burgeoning devotion to Rodolfo, empathy for the love-scarred Marcello, comfort with Colline and Schaunard, and admiration for Musetta—were reflected in the colorations with which Cesaroni infused her voice.

The euphoria of Act Two was gone when Mimì stumbled into Act Three, her gait weakened by sickness and conflict. Cesaroni’s voicing of ‘Sa dirma, scusi’ was pained, the demure outsider of Act One supplanting the more assured lady who arrived at Café Momus on Rodolfo’s arm. Desperation propelled the soprano’s singing of ‘O! buon Marcello, aiuto,’ the top B♭s redolent of emotional crisis. Listening as Rodolfo told Marcello of the ravages of her illness, this Mimì uttered Ahimè, morire?’ with genuine fear, not having admitted to herself that her life was slipping away. Facing this reality, Cesaroni phrased ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore’ with tremendous feeling. Mimì’s entrance in Act Four was harrowing, but Cesaroni’s singing of ‘O mio Rodolfo!’ and ‘Ah, come si sta bene qui’ heralded the dying woman’s consoling return to the milieu in which she knew happiness. She permeated ‘Sono andati?’ with serenity. Having lived discreetly, Cesaroni’s Mimì also died peacefully, liberated by her final reunion with the people who loved her. Cesaroni was a Mimì whose intimate death was felt by every observer who has endured the loss of a loved one. It is this connection between music and audience that keeps La bohème on the world’s stages and in listeners’ hearts.

25 January 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: George Gershwin — PORGY AND BESS (T. Cannon, R. Giddens, A. R. Simpson, M. Preacely, R. A. Mack, I. Mahajan, S. Outlaw, G. Shirley, E. Green, C. Packer; Greensboro Opera, 21 January 2022)

IN REVIEW: soprano RHIANNON GIDDENS as Bess in Greensboro Opera's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898 – 1937): Porgy and BessThomas Cannon (Porgy), Rhiannon Giddens (Bess), Angela Renée Simpson (Serena), Michael Preacely (Crown), Robert Anthony Mack (Sportin’ Life), Indira Mahajan (Clara), Sidney Outlaw (Jake), George Shirley (Peter), Elvira O. Green (Maria), Chauncey Packer (Robbins, Crab man), Paisley Alexandra Williams (Strawberry woman), Maurio Hines (Nelson), Ernest Jackson (Mingo), Monique McLeod (Annie), Alicia Helm McCorvey (Lily), Reginald Powell (Jim), Richard L. Hodges (Undertaker, Lawyer Frazier), Donald Hartmann (Detective), Robert Wells (Coroner), Douglas Grimm (Policeman), Collin McCrea (Policeman), A. Robinson Hassell (Mr. Archdale), Levi Ponder (Scipio); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Awadagin Pratt, conductor [David Holley, Producer; Everett McCorvey, Stage Director; John Farrell, Set Designer; Ashley Lindsey, Choreographer; Jeff Neubauer, Technical Director and Lighting Designer; Jennifer Zumpf-Valosen, Costume Designer; Trent Pcenicni, Wig and Makeup Designer; Greensboro Opera; Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 21 January 2022]

When Todd Duncan and Anne Brown created the title rôles in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on the stage of Boston’s Colonial Theatre on 30 September 1935, the cultural landscape of American musical theater was lastingly—and controversially—expanded to include communities and stories beyond the genre’s conventional parameters. Drawing his subject from DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, adapted for the Broadway stage by Heyward and his wife Dorothy in 1927, Ira Gershwin collaborated with the authors to provide his brother with a libretto that, though unquestionably perpetuating derogatory stereotypes, offered the composer opportunities to celebrate the nobility of a segment of the nation’s population that few theatergoers had experienced in 1935.

Characterizing Porgy and Bess as an ‘American opera,’ Gershwin composed with his heart in the opera house and his mind on the Great White Way, knowing that a piece with Black protagonists portrayed by Black singers was unlikely to be accepted by America’s opera houses. As the centennial of the opera’s première approaches, stagings like Greensboro Opera’s long-anticipated production affirm that Porgy and Bess belongs in opera houses, alongside the masterworks of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Richard Strauss.

Produced by the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley, this staging of Porgy and Bess began Greensboro Opera’s association with Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, this partnership was the source of the evening’s sole disappointment. Designed with the principal aim of being Greensboro’s new home for touring productions of Broadway musicals, Tanger Center proved to be an imperfect venue for opera. Without the body microphones and sound mixing now common in musical theater, too much of the sound emanating from the stage was muddled by the auditorium’s dull acoustic. Large voices made no greater impact than their more modest counterparts, and both diction and intonation were sometimes difficult to assess. The singers adapted their performances to the room, however, and the production took advantage of Tanger Center’s spatial and technological capabilities, magnificently transforming the expansive stage into Catfish Row.

The extended delays imposed upon this production by the COVID-19 pandemic clearly intensified Greensboro Opera’s focus on realizing the full dramatic power of Porgy and Bess. Imaginatively but sensibly illuminated by Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs and technical direction, both John Farrell’s atmospheric set designs, beautifully evoking South Carolina’s Low Country by framing the tableaux with suggestions of hanging mosses and a view of the Morris Island Lighthouse, and Jennifer Zumpf-Valosen’s vibrant costumes complemented the singers’ characterizations of the residents of—and the intruders into—Catfish Row. Trent Pcenicni’s wig and makeup designs were wholly credible for the opera’s setting, glorifying the natural beauty of Catfish Row’s inhabitants.

Dale Girard’s fight choreography yielded altercations of a level of realism rarely encountered in opera, and Ashley Lindsey’s choreography enlivened every scene, particularly those in which Sportin’ Life appeared. Stage director Everett McCorvey brought a singer’s insights and experience to his task, achieving compelling dramatic verisimilitude whilst safeguarding musical integrity. Throughout the performance, no element of the staging impeded the act and art of singing, markedly enhancing the credibility of these characters whose struggles play out in song.

Débuting as a conductor of opera, acclaimed pianist Awadagin Pratt demonstrated deft handling of the jazz rhythms that frolic in Gershwin’s music. The prominent echoes of Tin Pan Alley notwithstanding, the listener is frequently reminded that Porgy and Bess is a contemporary of Berg’s Lulu, Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae and Die schweigsame Frau, Mascagni’s Nerone, and Enescu’s Œdipe. Pratt’s pacing of the performance accentuated the score’s modernity, emphasizing the piquancy of the harmonies. The prevailing aptness of the balances between stage and orchestra pit was indisputably more to Pratt’s credit than to that of the theater’s aural profile.

Occasionally, the conductor’s assured management of the musical forces was compromised by moments of imprecision in large ensembles, but the adroitness with which he restored equilibrium was indicative of his preparedness. Under Pratt’s baton, Greensboro Opera Orchestra’s musicians played superbly, their mastery of Gershwin’s score producing sounds that were raucous or radiant as each phrase required. Conductor and orchestra collaborated to support the singers and extol Gershwin’s genius.

The choristers assembled under the direction of James Bumgardner sang powerfully from their first utterance in Act One. [In this production, Gershwin’s three acts were arranged into two acts, with the interval following the scene in which Crown accosts Bess on Kittiwah Island.] The choral set pieces were performed with unstinting energy. The fight scene in Act One bristled with agitation and alarm, the chorus’s horrified reaction to Crown’s violence creating an aura of disquiet in which the lament for the slain Robbins, ‘Oh, we’re leavin’ for the Promise’ Lan’,’ was genuinely cathartic. The choral responses to Sportin‘ Life‘s ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ were wonderfully animated. The choristers‘ singing of the prayer for divine protection from the hurricane and the opera’s final ensemble revealed these scenes to be peers of the choral writing in Die Zauberflöte and Fidelio.

IN REVIEW: tenor ROBERT ANTHONY MACK as Sportin' Life (left) and mezzo-soprano ELVIRA O. GREEN as Maria (right) in Greensboro Opera's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]Ain’t no misbehavin’: tenor Robert Anthony Mack as Sportin’ Life (left) and mezzo-soprano Elvira O. Green as Maria (right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jarmoz Photography]

The success of a performance of Porgy and Bess relies greatly upon the cast’s creation of a believable society in which the characters play distinct parts. In Greensboro Opera’s production, the west-of-East-Bay-Street figures who encroach upon Catfish Row’s delicate order seemed to emerge from a foreign realm, their lack of understanding of their neighbors’ community contrasting with the unspoken camaraderie that united the occupants of Catfish Row. Assigning all but one of the rôles of the interloping Charlestonians—parts that are sometimes embarrassingly caricatured—to singers rather than actors lent their lines uncommonly effective timing. The Honorable A. Robinson Hassell’s Mr. Archdale relayed his good tidings benevolently, and young artists Douglas Grimm and Collin McCrae crassly imparted the policemen’s low regard for their countrymen of color. Robert Wells was an earnest but anxious coroner whose discomfort in Catfish Row was palpable. The exasperation of Donald Hartmann bemused, brutal detective erupted into song when, rather than speaking, he joined his witnesses in singing their final ‘Three days and nights’ when questioning them about Crown’s untimely demise.

Amongst the many accomplishments of this production of Porgy and , none was more laudable than the casting of principal and secondary rôles. The theatrical instincts with which Gershwin gave each of the male citizens of Catfish Row a singular function in the drama prefigures Britten’s meticulous depictions of the sailors aboard the HMS Indomitable in Billy Budd. Bass-baritone Reginald Powell declared Jim’s disenfranchisement with toiling in the cotton fields potently and sang all of his music assertively. The gleaming tenor voices of Ernest Jackson and Maurio Hines lent Mingo’s and Nelson’s lines individuality, their tones reverberating in the house excitingly, and Levi Ponder was a spirited Scipio. Baritone Richard L. Hodges was as magisterial as the Undertaker as he was wily as Lawyer Frazier, the voice imposingly handsome.

The cast’s ladies uniformly rivaled the gentlemen’s vocal and theatrical prowess. Sopranos Monique McLeod and Alicia Helm McCorvey voiced Gershwin’s music for Annie and Lily​ fetchingly, their timbres distinguishable but blending gorgeously in ensembles and their upper registers easily overcoming the theater’​s sonic difficulties. Mezzo-soprano Paisley Alexandra Williams touted the Strawberry woman’s merchandise bewitchingly, her tones glistening like rays of aural sunlight.

IN REVIEW: baritone SIDNEY OUTLAW as Jake in Greensboro Opera's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]Fishing for trouble: baritone Sidney Outlaw as Jake in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]

As vital to the advancement of diversity in opera as performances of works like Porgy and Bess is the work of artists of color, and Greensboro Opera’s staging of Porgy and Bess was immeasurably enriched by the participation of a pair of operatic trailblazers. When he substituted for an indisposed colleague to make his Metropolitan Opera début as Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte on 24 October 1961, George Shirley inaugurated a fruitful association with that company. Having been the first Black singer to win the MET’s National Council Auditions, he became the first Black tenor to interpret leading rôles at the MET.

As the honey man Peter in Greensboro Opera’s Porgy and Bess, Shirley’s singing was a testament to the importance of technique in vocal longevity. The voice retains much of its familiar clarity and recognizable timbre and was deployed with undiminished refinement. Shirley’s acting was exquisitely understated, Peter’s frightened protestations of innocence when being wrongfully arrested as a suspect in Robbins’s murder depicted with wrenching immediacy. Without exaggerating one tone, word, or gesture, Shirley commanded attention whenever he was on stage, not least when, finally released from jail, Peter quietly but joyfully returned to Catfish Row. The sincerity of Shirley’s performance made the battered but resilient honey man the show’s most unforgettably moving characterization.

Following Shirley’s path at Lincoln Center, mezzo-soprano Elvira O. Green’s 1973 début in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier began a MET career that partnered her with fellow artists of the caliber of Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Reri Grist, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Fedora Barbieri, Tatiana Troyanos, Jon Vickers, and Luciano Pavarotti. In the course of her tenure at the MET, Green also sang the cookshop owner Maria in two revivals of the Nathaniel Merrill production of Porgy and Bess. [Sadly, Porgy and Bess did not receive a new staging at the MET until the opening of James Robinson’s widely-acclaimed production in 2019.]

Reprising the rôle of Catfish Row’s den mother of sorts, Green watched over her community with indefatigable authority. Whether singing or speaking, her words were not to be ignored, a lesson in which even the flippant Sportin’ Life was schooled. Despite her sternness, epitomized by a ferociously-declaimed ‘I hates yo’ struttin’ style.’ Maria’s affection for her community was unwavering. Green scowled, physically and vocally, and hurled notes at the top of the stave with aplomb, but the core of her portrayal was tenderness. Green’s Maris was a woman made better, not bitter, by hardship.

Returning to rôles that he sang at the Metropolitan Opera as recently as December 2021, tenor Chauncey Packer swept onto the Tanger Center stage with irrepressible zeal. As Robbins, the longing for diversion that leads him to his fatal confrontation with Crown saturated his febrile singing, but there was no cruelty in his rejoinder of ‘I been workin’ all day’ to Serena’s pleas for him to avoid the craps game. Packer’s rousing voicing of the Crab man’s hawking elicited an ecstatic reaction from the audience, the singer’s artistic versatility first grieving and then thrilling.

IN REVIEW: tenor ROBERT ANTHONY MACK as Sportin' Life (foreground right) in Greensboro Oprea's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]Preaching to the choir: tenor Robert Anthony Mack as Sportin’ Life (foreground right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]

Aside from singing the number that is arguably Gershwin’s best-known vocal piece, Clara’s rôle in the opera’s drama is largely confined to serving as a Cassandra-like foreseer of misfortune. She introduces herself to the audience with ‘Summertime,’ however, and soprano Indira Mahajan’s introduction in Greensboro was sublimely auspicious. The glowing mahogany timbre of Mahajan’s voice enabled her to project her sound above the orchestra (and through the theater’s acoustical murk) without imperiling her facility for floating tones in her upper register. A sweetly magnetic stage presence, Mahajan touchingly depicted the young mother’s unflappable devotion to her husband and child. Clara’s premonition of the approaching hurricane was harrowing, and her scream as she sighted Jake’s capsized boat seemed startlingly spontaneous. The determination with which Mahajan’s Clara rushed out into the tempest to save Jake at any cost underscored the kinship between the adoring wife and Wagner’s Senta that exists in Gershwin’s musical construction. Each of Mahajan’s phrases combined tonal beauty with dramatic intensity.

The man for whom Clara heroically sacrifices her life, the ebullient fisherman Jake, was depicted with imperturbable musicality and galvanizing physical presence by baritone Sidney Outlaw. ‘A woman is a sometimes thing,’Jake’s jovial counterpart to ‘Summertime,’ Clara’s lullaby to their child, was sung with exuberance and tonal allure, the industrious father’s easygoing philosophy stated with amiable enthusiasm. Outlaw brought resolve redolent of Der fliegende Holländer to his voicing of ‘Oh, I’m agoin’ out to the Blackfish banks,’ heightening awareness of the relationships between Wagner’s and Gershwin’s stories. In spite of his untroubled nature, Outlaw’s Jake was shadowed by tragedy from his first scene. Jake’s music afforded the baritone few opportunities for the expressive lyricism at which he excels, but he created a sensitive characterization of one of opera’s few genuinely ordinary men.

Destined to become a widow in the opera’s first half hour, Serena is the moral foundation of Catfish Row, a woman of profound faith who finds solace in the promise of heavenly reward and endeavors to guide her neighbors along a more righteous path. Still, she is a woman who seeks fulfillment in living honestly, and Greensboro Opera’s Serena was never more touching than when Angela Renée Simpson’s smile flooded the stage with warmth. The soprano’s performance intimated that a woman so accustomed to strife embracing life’s fleeting joys is proof of humanity’s bond with Providence.

Serena having watched Robbins fall at Crown’s hand, Simpson intoned ‘My man’s gone now’ arrestingly, building from a hushed start, the words too painful to enunciate, to a crushing apex of despair. When the full volume of Simpson’s voice was unfurled, heaven itself quaked with her sounds. At the picnic on Kittiwah Island, her ‘Shame on all you sinners’ was a stinging rebuke of Sportin’ Life’s sacrilege. In raising prayers for divine intervention during the hurricane and calling upon ‘Doctor Jesus’ to heal Bess, Simpson sang dazzlingly, the emotional deluges never undermining vocal placement. Porgy ends the opera with a pronouncement of optimism, but, in this performance, it was Serena who instilled the belief that, come what may, Catfish Row would endure.

IN REVIEW: soprano RHIANNON GIDDENS as Bess (left) and baritone MICHAEL PREACELY as Crown (right) in Greensboro Opera's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]The art of making an entrance: soprano Rhiannon Giddens as Bess (left) and baritone Michael Preacely as Crown (right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]

On Broadway, in opera houses, and on recordings, the most effective portrayers of the eerily charismatic blasphemer and ‘happy dust’ peddler Sportin’ Life have been those whose​ virtuoso singing was allied with​ expert acting. Greensboro Opera’s Sportin’ Life, tenor Robert Anthony Mack, cavorted across the stage with agility and a dangerously disarming grin, spouting heresies with the conviction of an evangelist. Always lurking on the periphery of the action, his harassment of Bess was insistent but frustratingly genial. Mack’s performance of the beloved ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ exuded showmanship, his lithe dancing reminiscent of Ben Vereen. Passing phrases betrayed the effort required to project the voice over Gershwin’s orchestrations, but Mack utilized every sound to deepen his portrayal. His voicing of ‘There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York’ was obsequiously persuasive. Mack’s Sportin’ Life was keenly aware that the most important weapon in a trickster’s arsenal is the art of escape, but the sparkle of the tenor’s singing could not be hidden.

Baritone Michael Preacely was a Crown who unmistakably understood that, in order to repulse, he must first attract. Entering with bracing bravado in Act One, this Crown was not outshone even by the scarlet-clad Bess. This was also true of Preacely’s vocalism: amidst much wonderful singing, the excellence of his work was never overshadowed. Ever menacing, Preacely’s Crown was also atypically sympathetic, his penchant for savagery seeming to arise not from intrinsic evil or conscious choice but from a lifetime of exposure to others’ ruthlessness. The cornerstones of Crown’s liaison with Bess are lust, pride, and obsession, but the suavity with which Preacely sang, including in the scene on Kittiwah Island in which Crown’s seduction of Bess is anything but romantic, hinted that this Crown may also have truly loved Bess. Similarly, Crown’s taunting of Porgy was more juvenile than monstrous. Each word of the part was sung with meaning, the baritone rarely resorting to growling for dramatic effect. Rather, Preacely sang Crown’s music accurately and euphoniously, finding the impetus for his characterization in Gershwin’s score.

IN REVIEW: soprano RHIANNON GIDDENS as Bess in Greensboro Opera's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]Low Country Lady: soprano Rhiannon Giddens as Bess in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jarmoz Photography]

Eighteen years had passed since soprano Rhiannon Giddens appeared on an opera stage. Focusing on widely-acclaimed projects including recording and touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has concentrated on rejuvenating old-time string-band music. Her contributions to the preservation of America’s folk traditions are invaluable, but her return to opera was a fortuitous and rightly heralded homecoming. Casting Giddens as Bess in this production garnered considerable publicity, but her portrayal of Gershwin’s complex heroine was no mere star turn. It was apparent from her first step onto the set, attired like a refugee from Josephine Baker’s Paris, that Giddens surrendered her own artistic persona to the nuances of Bess’s character, approaching a rôle interpreted in years past by Camilla Williams, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Roberta Alexander, and Leona Mitchell with unique musical and dramatic sensibilities.

As the ranks of the part’s notable exponents indicate, Bess’s music is best served by spinto voices. Giddens’s voice is a more lyrical instrument, and there were passages in which the vocal lines required slightly more heft than Giddens could supply, yet she met the challenges without pushing the voice beyond its limits. The panic with which she delivered ‘Somebody please help me’ when the police were coming to investigate Robbins’s murder gave way to the serenity that suffused her singing of ‘Oh, the train is at the station’ at Robbins’s wake. Giddens ascended to the amorous heights of ‘Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now’​ fearlessly, her upper register gaining strength as the duet progressed.

The dramatic trajectory of the opera changes with Bess’s encounter with Crown on Kittiwah Island, and the burgeoning constaternation that shaded Giddens’s singing signaled that happiness with Porgy was slipping from Bess’s grasp. The contempt of ‘What you want wid Bess?’ was directed as much at Bess’s own addiction and carnal desire as at Crown. Reunited with Porgy, she sang ‘I loves you, Porgy’ affectionately, but the illusion of their blissful future was broken. In this performance, the wistfulness of Bess’s reprise of ‘Summertime’ instigated her flight from Catfish Row. Whereas some interpreters of the part portray Bess’s departure for New York with Sportin’ Life as a final lapse into debauchery, Giddens’s Bess was impelled to some degree by selflessness, her abandonment of Porgy freeing him from her demons. Giddens was a glamorous Bess, but hers was not a diva’s performance. Like her colleagues, she placed her trust in Gershwin’s music and sang it without artifice or affectation.

IN REVIEW: soprano RHIANNON GIDDENS as Bess (left) and baritone THOMAS CANNON as Porgy (right) in Greensboro Opera's January 2022 production of George Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS [Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]Happy never after: soprano Rhiannon Giddens as Bess (left) and baritone Thomas Cannon as Porgy (right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]

If love alone were sufficient to right the wrongs of the past, the love of baritone Thomas Cannon’s Porgy for Giddens’s Bess would have secured the joyous, simple life for which Porgy longed. On his terms, Porgy’s entrance in this performance was no less impactful than Crown’s, the visibility of his disability distancing him from his community. Resigned survival of an outsider’s loneliness was a momentous element of Cannon’s portrayal, his voicing of Porgy’s lines in Act One shaped by subtle melancholy. His reading of the famed ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’’ was surprisingly subdued, an eloquent expression of self-reliance. Whether to reduce the opera’s duration or marginally narrow the part’s range, cutting Porgy’s ‘Buzzard keep on flyin’ over’ is a damaging tradition. Cannon’s exhilarating account of the number revealed the depth of influence of Bess on Porgy’s life, the baritone’s intonation more secure here than in other scenes.

Cannon’s Porgy bared his heart in his ardently-sung ‘Bess, you is my woman now,’ but here, too, an awkward shyness was perceptible, the man used only to his own company slowly leaning to open his private world to another person. Porgy’s concern for Bess during her illness recalled Golaud’s vigil at the side of the dying Mélisande, helplessness crippling Cannon’s Porgy more injuriously than his physiological malady. The exchange in which Porgy divulges that he has sensed that Bess was with Crown on Kittiwah Island was especially poignant, and Cannon voiced ‘What you think I is, anyway’ subtly, assuring Bess of his commitment to liberating her from Crown’s infatuation.

In this performance, the interpretation of the opera’s final scene was refreshingly devoid of saccharine sentimentality. Cannon proclaimed ‘Oh Lawd, I’m on my way’ with bronze-toned confidence, sure of the path before him. More than in many performances, Porgy’s way seemed to lead not to New York but to meeting his Lord. The crutch with which he killed Crown was also the crutch that carried him beyond the safety of Catfish Row, the cross that engendered his salvation. The essence of Porgy and Bess is redemption, and this superlatively-sung performance honored the redeeming grace of humble people doing their best, living and loving through calamities of man and nature.