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In 1990, there was a memorable post-Hurricane Hugo Porgy and Bess in Charleston; since then, a star-cast concert version of George Gershwin's opera was presented by the North Carolina Symphony, and at least three serviceable touring productions have played in Durham and Greenville. Opera Carolina's February 8 performance, in the Belk Theatre of Charlotte's Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, was the most fully satisfying. Fine evocative sets, skillfully lighted, a large and nimble orchestra in the pit, and a remarkably even cast of singing actors, bolstered by a local chorus, made for a richly fulfilling afternoon of theatre.
It would be difficult to imagine finer performances than those given by three of the leading singers: Alvy Powell as Porgy, Marsha Thompson as Bess, and Robert Mack as Sporting Life. Bass-baritone Powell filled the hall with full, resonant tone and gave a brilliant portrayal of the full compass of Porgy's emotions: superstitious fear, aching loneliness, and passionate love for Bess. Dramatic soprano Thompson was simply the finest Bess we have yet seen and heard. She was, in turn, a brazen slut, a hunted woman, content with Porgy or, with Crown or Sporting Life, a happy dust and sex addict. Whether projecting guileful charm or slithering about the stage, robust voiced tenor Robert Mack was the ideal Sporting Life, preying upon the weaknesses of everyone in Catfish Row. Smooth and even-voiced baritone Cedric Cannon sang Crown well, but we have seen more terrifying interpretations. He was a really bad dude but not our worst nightmare.
"Summertime" appears three times; it was sung, twice, by soprano Louise Toppin, as Clara, and again by Bess, comforting Clara's and Jake's orphaned child. Baritone Leonard Rowe, as Jake, milked "A woman is a sometime thing" for all it was worth. Mezzo-soprano Linda Thompson Williams' characterization of Maria, the cook-shop keeper, was outstanding; this is a juicy role in any production, given her confrontation with the drug-dealing Sporting Life, and she was memorable as a formidable harridan, towering over the prone low life and stropping her meat cleaver on his tie! (He slithered beneath her skirt to exit from the back of the stage.) The crap game and ensuing fight between Crown and tenor Barron Coleman, as Robbins, were very effectively staged. Soprano Angela Renée Simpson was memorable in two scenes, lamenting "My man's gone now" at Robbin's wake and giving a fervent "Oh, doctor Jesus" to launch the group prayer that ends Bess' post-Kittiwah Island picnic delirium. Members of the Charlotte Contemporary Ensemble, directed by Jacqueline P. Robinson, and the Opera Carolina Chorus were smoothly folded into the mix; they richly portrayed the residents of the run-down tenement. Tenor Ron Taylor did double duty as Peter, the Honey Man, and as the Crab Man. As late as the early 1980s, the characteristic call of these street sellers could still be heard in the lower reaches of Charleston, just blocks away from the original Catfish Row.
Conductor James Meena led a substantial pit orchestra consisting of members of the Charlotte Symphony in a taut, rhythmically vital and idiomatic performance of Gershwin's orchestral score. The trumpets and other muted brasses, and the percussion, were "hot." An insidious and meandering statement of the tune, "It ain't necessarily so," underlining a sneaky entrance by Sporting Life several scenes before his bravura singing of the tune at the picnic, was especially memorable. The most direct link to Africa was the Dionysian "I ain't got no shame, doin' what I like to do!" for the full ensemble, given with a driving percussion beat.
Stage Director Jay Lesenger was unusually successful in creating true-to-life blocking of the large ensemble and dramatic interaction among and between the main characters. When lit from the front, the sets created a perfect evocation of a derelict Charleston tenement, down to the characteristic salmon stucco, which is still common. When backlit, the same sets were transparent, revealing action deep on the stage. The recorded storm sounds were acceptable although a traditional wind machine would have been better. The lightning during the storm was very realistic. The candles, scattered throughout the Catfish Row set as everyone searched for Clara after the hurricane, were innovative and effective. Kudos to Lighting Designer Norman Coates.