BWW REVIEW: Sydney Symphony Orchestra Presents A Staged Concert Version of The Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS
Friday 2nd December 2016, 7pm, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
The rarely performed 1930's American Opera, PORGY AND BESS is given a Staged Concert treatment by Director Mitchell Butel with the support of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. With a predominantly imported cast to meet the Ira Gershwin's original casting stipulations, the historically controversial piece of American Musical history is presented with heart and as much honesty as possible for a work with music written by Jewish New Yorker George Gershwin and a book by the son of a South Carolina Judge DuBose Heyward and his wife Dorothy Heyward with additional lyrics by George's brother Ira Gershwin.
The staging predominantly takes place on Laura Daniel's (Stage Design, SSO Production Manager) extension and thrust that reaches out into the audience but also weaves between the full 72 piece Sydney Symphony Orchestra that dominates the iconic Sydney Opera House Concert Hall stage and the 126 strong Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. With a minimum of set dressing of packing crates, kitchen chairs and fishing nets the setting of 'Catfish Row' and the wharves of Charleston South Carolina is implied. Butel's direction and Max Wilkie's lighting design help to differentiate between spaces and indicate setting changes whilst adding to the mood from excitement to fear and suspense. Costuming is generally kept simple with additions of shawls to indicate mourning and hats to celebrate picnics with the most significant change relating to Bess' move from girlfriend of the volatile Crown (and potentially a lady of the night) to a more respectable position by Porgy's side.
Butel does well with the limitations of the concert style, drawing out the emotion and adding a balance of drama and comedy to the work. He brings in his signature playfulness to the physicality, from the young Scipio (Djakapurra Beatty) representing the children of the community to the scheming Sporting Life (Jermaine Smith) and the bold Maria (Gwendolyn Brown). This is contrasted with the brutality of the fight scenes between Crown (Eric Greene), Robbins (John Fulton) and later Porgy (AlFRed Walker), artfully created by Movement Consultant and Assistant Director Amy Campbell and the carnality of the expression of lust, domination and possession.
Whilst the vocals are strong, with some wonderful ringing sopranos and rich rumbling bass-baritone from Nicole Cabell (Bess) and AlFRed Walker (Porgy) and the rest of the cast, they are however let down by Des O'Neill's sound design. It appears that given this work is being staged by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to appease subscribers the decision has been made to focus on the orchestrations rather than ensuring that the vocals can be heard properly. With all the singers utilising body microphones for this operatic work, the capacity to ensure that the vocals were clear did not rely on restraining the orchestra as a traditional un-amplified opera would do so it is disappointing that some vocals were lost completely beneath the orchestra. The staging opts to focus on the work's operatic expression as opposed to some productions taking a more musical theatre approach which therefore results in a focus on the vowels and tone of the music than accents. There is however a marked contrast between the featured singers' sound and the choir which is more suited to religious and classical works than this work of Americana which results in a disjoint and drawing focus to the differing demographic of the choir in relation the story being told.
This combination of a Staged concert of PORGY AND BESS allows Sydney audiences to enjoy the full effect of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra whilst experiencing a musical that isn't performed often due to its logistical challenges and the costs involved in staging a full show. Whilst the season of PORGY AND BESS with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was very short, hopefully Mitchell Butel will be given the opportunity to stage this work again and expand it to a more traditional theatre stage. With his wonderful cast he draws out the emotion and challenges of the society, highlighting the fact that the African American community is still facing some of the same issues some 80 years later.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra