Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Symphony Hall – Amplified Again! (Is amplification musical doping?)

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Jermaine Smith as Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess with Bramwell Tovey conducting the BSO. Photo Stu Rosner.
Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess with Bramwell Tovey conducting the BSO. Photo Stu Rosner.

Thursday, September 27, 8 p.m.
Friday, September 28, 8 p.m.
Saturday, September 29, 8 p.m.

Porgy and Bess
Opera in three acts by George Gershwin,
DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin Original 1935 production version
Restoration from the original production materials
by John Mauceri with assistance from Wayne Shirley, Charles Hamm, and Scott Dunn

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Alfred Walker, bass-baritone (Porgy)
Laquita Mitchell, soprano (Bess)
Alison Buchanan, soprano (Lily, Strawberry Woman)
Angel Blue, soprano (Clara)
Marquita Lister, soprano (Serena)
Krysty Swann, mezzo-soprano (Annie)
Gwendolyn Brown, contralto (Maria)
Calvin Lee, tenor (Mingo, Nelson, Crab Man)
Jermaine Smith, tenor (Sportin’ Life)
Chauncey Packer, tenor (Peter)
Gregg Baker, baritone (Crown)
Patrick Blackwell, baritone (Jim, Undertaker)
John Fulton, baritone (Robbins)
Robert Honeysucker, baritone (Frazier)
Leon Williams, baritone (Jake)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my keen anticipation of this reprise of the 2011 Tanglewood performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — not to hear an excellent performance of a “good” version of the opera once again, but to hear it properly for the first time. As I said in my preview of this performance, the Tanglewood performance was totally vitiated — ruined — by the extensive use of amplification for the singers. None of Berkshire Review writers who attended wanted to review it. Although virtually the entire cast consisted of established opera singers, it was thought necessary to provide them with individual microphones. At the time, I thought this had to do mostly with the misguided notion of using elaborate “staging” for that concert performance, with singers entering from both sides of the vast stage. The result was that I heard the voice of a singer entering from the right coming from the left speaker, etc.  Even worse was the fact that we rarely heard the singers’ voices directly, but only as recreated through the Music Shed’s wireless mics and enormous horn speakers. I couldn’t believe that the BSO management or the conductor, Bramwell Tovey, would try this again at Symphony Hall. For that reason I cheerfully procrastinated about writing about the problem until barely a month before the 2012 reprise. It seemed logical that one of the reasons for the Symphony Hall reprise was to set things right.

I was quite shocked when I met my friends before the Symphony Hall performance and heard that my colleague on the Globe had complained about amplification. I felt like a bit of a dupe, because I probably wouldn’t have driven in to Boston for it, if I had known. In the end I’m glad I did, because it was an excellent performance. The amplification was not as objectionable as it was at Tanglewood either, although there is no excuse for it to begin with.

Bramwell Tovey, an Englishman based in Vancouver, seems to love the work and to have quite an affinity for it. His treatment comes basically from the classical side. He set firm tempi for each number, and the music followed his beat as surely as if it were Die Meistersinger. When Tovey wanted it that way, it could be flexible enough to accommodate the blues elements idiomatically. One illustration of this was “I got plenty o’ nothin.” In its first, primary occurrence, I was struck by how fast and rigid the tempo was. It seemed rather odd. When Porgy sang it the second time, however, Tovey allowed the phrases to expand and follow their own course — but not in the usual way. Tovey gave it a particular lilt of his own, which was original and interesting. When Bramwell Tovey made his Symphony Hall debut in January, I was interested to learn that he had studied with Sir Adrian Boult. I could hear that influence readily in the Mendelssohn symphony he conducted, but now I could detect it in Porgy as well — not a likely place for Sir Adrian’s ghost to show itself, but for the better, if anything. I thought I could hear it in the clean balances and in the decisive and consistent choice of tempi.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus seemed slightly reduced from their huge numbers at Tanglewood, but they were still out in force. In fact they seemed to lie at the center of Tovey’s concept. The chorus plays a major role in the drama, and Gershwin gave them a lot of wonderful music, so it only made sense to take advantage of this great chorus and their director, John Oliver. It was a joy to hear them throughout, and of course neither they nor the orchestra were noticeably affected by the amplification. Their diction, precise ensemble, and detail of inflection was astonishing and obviated all of the drawbacks one might expect from such a large chorus. Tovey wanted them to jive a bit, smile, and interact to get them out of their usual mould. At Symphony Hall this host of almost entirely Caucasian lawyers, psychiatrists, professors, etc. were a bit more restrained (self-conscious?) than at Tanglewood, but I did wonder if they were actually enjoying themselves, or if there were people standing behind the risers with shotguns. In any case, the TFC was the glory of the evening, not that the orchestra didn’t play with spirit and style or that the soloists, sadly distorted by electronics as they were, weren’t first-rate.

Laquita Mitchell gave a thoroughly convincing portrayal of Bess with her lost, vague look behind an attractive, broad face and a good deal of makeup. She sang with a clear soprano and shaped her lines beautifully. Alfred Walker was an upstanding Porgy, never asking for pity. He really seemed to have a deep grasp of the role, and his performance seemed to have matured since Tanglewood. His resonant, glowing bass-baritone was magnificent throughout. Gwendolyn Brown was entirely in command of Maria, a role which dangerously skirts the stereotypes which made many people, including some of Porgy‘s first cast, uncomfortable. She masterfully kept them at bay, and delighted the audience. Jermaine Smith has performed the role of Sportin’ Life around the world, and he has his routine down cold, including some elaborate gymnastics of a raffish character. His sparkling act won over the house both at Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall, although on Saturday night, when I was there, his voice seemed a little tired, and his physical antics were cramped by the reduced space on stage, which otherwise forced the singers to simplify the action in a most welcome way. Compliments to all the rest of the cast. Everyone was consistently excellent.

On the way out I caught sight of Mark Volpe and asked him why the BSO insisted on using amplification, when several of the cast members regularly sang Wagner and could easily make themselves heard in the Music Shed, not to mention Symphony Hall. He answered that a few cast members really couldn’t make themselves heard over the large orchestra and chorus. It would then seem that Tovey’s grandiose conception of the opera, which works well in itself, is to blame for the amplification. It was wonderful to hear the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in all their glory, but, when one considers how those splendid solo voices were compromised, it seems doubtful whether it’s worth it. The relationship between the human ear and the human voice is so intimate, that it is all but destroyed by the mediation of electro-mechanical devices.

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