Spirit and suffering in the ghetto

  • by Jason Victor Serinus
  • Tuesday May 22, 2007
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Soprano Dara Rahming as Bess and baritone James Monroe<br>Iglehart as Porgy in Oakland East Bay Symphony's <i>Porgy and Bess.</i><br> Photo: Courtesy Encore Communications
Soprano Dara Rahming as Bess and baritone James Monroe
Iglehart as Porgy in Oakland East Bay Symphony's Porgy and Bess.
Photo: Courtesy Encore Communications

Could they duplicate their success? Given that the Oakland East Bay Symphony under Music Director Michael Morgan scored a major, thrilling triumph with 2005's production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, their May 18 production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess seemed a shoe-in. Both masterpieces assimilate quintessentially American show-biz pizzazz into scores filled with brilliant music of unquestionably operatic proportions. And both composers suffered as a result: Gershwin's Porgy has long been relegated to a classical netherland by those who (still) refuse to acknowledge that the opera had to open on Broadway because racist America would not allow an all-black cast into opera's hallowed halls; and Bernstein's Mass was critically derided by those who could not accept that glitter, spectacle, and social commentary have always been an essential element in liturgical presentation.

Seen in abridged concert version at a preview staged before the night before the May 18 performance, OEBS' Porgy and Bess was not without its problems. Some were purely technical: amplified sound varied between underpowered and hideously metallic, and the last-minute addition of projected supertitles was an unmitigated failure. Not only were the titles barely legible when projected on the black backdrop behind the chorus, but they were also frequently at variance with what was heard onstage. Given that the titles were in "correct" English while OEBS' production stuck to the libretto's original Catfish Row fantasy dialect, what was intended to clarify became a distraction.

A bigger problem lay with the artists' approach to the concert staging. Especially to someone who lives in the heart of Oakland's barrio, and daily walks the dog through gang members, drug deals, and people selling pieces for $100, the Heyward/Gershwin libretto's treatment of "magic dust" (cocaine) seems far removed from social realities. Had the cast been able to present Gershwin's music with a surpassing degree of dramatic conviction, questions of a dated and overly romanticized libretto would have passed for naught. After all, to return to Bernstein, having what sounds like West Side Story's Jets dance down the aisles of the cathedral may seem as preposterous as magic dust bringing instant happiness, but putting the music over with total emotional commitment transports music and drama to the realm of emotional truth.

In this regard, OEBS' Porgy and Bess stumbled. The cast, for the most part standing in place, managed to sing up an amplified storm while rarely exploring the emotional truths at the heart of Gershwin's music. They drew a huge amount of applause and cheers, which their expert vocalism certainly deserved. But the enthusiasm, at least to these ears, was far more for Gershwin's irresistible tunefulness than for any identification with the plight of Porgy and Bess.

As the "cripple" Porgy, Hayward native James Monroe Iglehart displayed an oft gorgeous, admirably steady instrument that increases in beauty and eloquence as it ascends the scale. Beyond the incongruity of seeing a supposedly disabled person rise with ease from his chair, the winning smile in his voice — far more baritonal than bass in nature — seemed at odds with Porgy's suffering. Even at his most tortured, Iglehart's Porgy seemed an arm-length away from his plight. As Bess, soprano Dara Rahming succeeded in taming her voice's slightly wild top and occasionally distracting beat as the evening processed. Heard at its most beautiful and expressive, and capable of a heaven-scent, floated dimuendo, her singing proved a major asset to the production.

Crown stud

The handsome Joseph Wright, who has excelled in traditional operatic roles at Opera San Jose, delivered an imposing Crown. Every inch the stud, Wright's commanding physicality went a long way toward compensating for the fact that he does not possess the high baritone demanded by Gershwin's writing. Oakland's Trente Morante, whose credits range from conducting the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Chorus to singing with the Oakland Ballet, may not possess a perfect tenor, but the man has theater in his blood. Smiling, dancing, twirling, dipping, and tripping the light fantastic, his Sportin' Life seemed far more a Peter Pan dispensing fairy dust than a manipulating drug dealer peddling coke.

Duana Demus was a standout as Serena, falling to her knees in "My Man's Gone Now." Her fabulously patterned dress went a long way toward putting over a role sung in a powerful, distinctly grand operatic manner. Louise Malandra delivered a beautiful "Summertime" in the otherwise relatively small role of Clara, Milton Williams bought a handsome, impeccable baritone to Jake, and Lori Willis was a bit underpowered in a host of smaller roles. Under Lynne Morrow, the almost all-white Oakland Symphony Chorus sang with gusto, having an especially gleeful time with the dialect.

If OEBS' main goal was to create a Gershwin love-fest, it most definitely succeeded. But if it also intended to convince, it left the distinct impression that this Porgy and Bess had absolutely no chance of finding its way to New York's Great White Way.