Porgy and Bess

Gershwin
Porgy and Bess [concert performance]

Porgy – Gregg Baker
Bess – Alison Buchanan
Crown – Daniel Washington
Sportin’ Life – Bernard Abervandana
Serena – Simone Sauphanor
Clara – Maureen Brathwaite
Jake – Ronald Samm
Maria – Hyacinth Nicholls

Crouch End Festival Chorus

BBC Concert Orchestra
Wayne Marshall


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 June, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Although this was advertised as a concert performance of Gershwin’s opera, it was, in reality, a selection of scenes and highlights. But perhaps one shouldn’t be churlish since the Pegasus Opera Company was promoting the event in order to raise funds for two charities – “War Child” and “Hope and Homes for Children” – and the soloists and conductor had donated their services.

It did mean that large chunks of the opera were missing – the events of the hour-long-plus Act One, for instance, were condensed into twenty minutes or so – but with Wayne Marshall’s fizzy and ebullient direction, exuberance was most certainly on the agenda.

Perhaps there was a little too much effervescence at times since one missed some of the more ruminative moments and as the selections were invariably the high-spirited ones, the contrast inherent in Gershwin’s design was not always apparent.

Tempos, on the whole, were fast and lively, on occasions too much so and orchestral detail was sometimes forsaken in the process. After a frenetic opening, Wayne Marshall presided at the piano for Jasbo Brown’s blues. The instrument was appropriately ‘honky-tonk’ – i.e. dreadfully, yet authentically, out of tune! The first vocal contribution was from the chorus and the Crouch EndFestival Chorus was consistent and exemplary in attack and enthusiasm, avidly following the conductor’s direction.

Maureen Brathwaite’s delivery of “Summertime” was lulling and caressing and, importantly, without exaggeration. The jump to Ronald Samm’s “A woman is a sometime thing” was disconcerting, but the spirit of this sardonic number was splendidly conveyed with a suitably oily trio of saxophones in attendance.

A quick move forward towards the end of Act One meant that Porgy’s entrance was omitted, and in the ‘Overflow’ chorus – which was thrilling in its fervour – Porgy’s spoken contribution was, curiously, left out.

Simone Sauphanor was impassioned in “My man’s gone now”, and Alison Buchanan made an immediate impression as Bess in the wonderful first act finale – “Leavin’ for the promised land”, even if some of the interpolated high notes would not have been to all tastes.

In “I got plenty of nothing” – a little way into the second act – Gregg Baker made a fine impression, even if he is more baritone than bass. He was warm, sympathetic and engaging here and throughout.

Daniel Washington – allotted the role of Crown – was, oddly, given Porgy’s “Buzzard Song”, an oft-omitted number and good to hear, with its woodwind swirls suggesting Gershwin was more than familiar with Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”.

“Bess, you is my woman now” was given with an almost Puccini-esque sensuousness, with singers backed by voluptuous and expressive strings, and the subsequent vivacious chorus “Oh I can’t sit down” and Porgy’s reprise of “I got plenty of nothing” brought the first half (and Gershwin’s Act Two, Scene One) to a close.

We were transported to Kittiwah Island via wild drumming and Sportin’ Life’s “It ain’t necessarily so” was given here as a kind of ‘double act’ with the solo line being shared with Samm. Whilst amusing in its own terms, it prevented Bernard Abervandana from making a full impression as the sleazy ‘rattlesnake’ (as Bess describes him later on) Sportin’ Life.

The Crown/Bess confrontation enabled a sense of dramatic frisson to develop, and Alison Buchanan was able to flesh out the ambiguities of Bess’s character most engagingly. Daniel Washington was a vibrant antagonist who vividly suggested Crown’s on-going hold over Bess torn between her lust for him and her love for Porgy.

Unconvincingly, we then had Bess’s scene with Porgy in which she vows to stay with him, come what may.

A pity we heard nothing of the remarkable storm scene with Crown’s big number “A red-headed woman” and the overlapping prayers, but we did have the chorus’s subsequent lament for the deaths of Jake and Clara. This was most movingly sung.

Abervandana was both feisty and tempting in “There’s a boatthat’s leaving soon for New York”, though the drawn-out pauses and exaggerations in the orchestral coda lessened the impact of this scene where Bess decides to take off for the big city.

We were then given the whole of the final scene of the opera, and most effective it was too, with splendid choral contributions (though no children’s choir) and characterful solos.

Porgy’s despair and subsequent decision to go to New York to look for Bess were strongly conveyed and the final “Oh Lord, I’m on my way” suggested a hopeful conclusion to Porgy’s quest.

All in all, whatever incidental shortcomings there may have been, this was a finely played and sung account conducted with flair and pizzazz.

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