Syracuse Opera's "Porgy and Bess" is a soulful celebration

On the cusp of its 40th anniversary, the Syracuse Opera's concert performance of the classic American opera brings communal jubilation and joy.

Opera originating on American soil is a rare breed. With the theaters saturated with the tradition of show tunes, vaudeville and musical theater, the European high art of opera has struggled to gain a popular foothold with both artists and audiences. 

But between the beginning of the early 20th century and the end of World War II, the genre lines between popular stage entertainment (theater, vaudeville, musicals and opera) were never more ambiguous and interchangeable. 

Porgy (Gordon Hawkins) and Bess (Laquita Mitchell) contemplating their future together in Syracuse Opera's concert performance of "Porgy and Bess."

George and Ira Gershwin are a prime example of the numerous multifaceted artists of the 1920s and 1930s. With numerous orchestrations, compositions, musicals, films and operas credited to their name, the Gershwin sound of classical, folk and jazz infused into the popular forms of the day.

Among the multitude of modern day classics that erupted from the minds of Gershwin Inc. was their first foray into the Old World’s form of choice, opera: Porgy and Bess.

Based on the book and subsequent play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, Porgy and Bess takes place in the fictional poor dock neighborhood of Catfish Row just outside of Charleston, S.C. The story centers on the love triangle between Crown (a violent and drug-addled dock worker) his woman Bess (a passionate free-flying spirit) and Porgy (a crippled beggar yearning for his own slice of happiness). Intermixed between Porgy and Crown’s dispute over Bess is a tapestry of bright and memorable characters, songs, and relationships.

That tapestry weaved through every row and seat in Syracuse Opera’s sold-out concert performance of the Gershwins and Heywards’ seminal work. And similar to Catfish Row, that afternoon the OnCenter was lit with a communal sense of wonder and celebration as Syracuse Opera’s final production of the season, on the eve of their 40th anniversary, was a vigorous display of artistic strength. 

Directed and produced in a concert format, the production lacked a complete set but the sparseness of the stage made room for an ensemble filled with giant strides and titanic performances. Gordon Hawkins as Porgy, Laquita Mitchell as Bess, and Michael Redding as Crown acted as the conflicting lovers portraying a seemingly biblical expanse of passion, pain, fear, insecurity, desperation, and voice. When Hawkins and Mitchell launch into “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” the two spark like fireflies in the marshy Charleston night time air. Redding’s presence and baritone delivery seemed to shake the core of the audience with his demonic villainy, so much so that Redding received a bevy of playful boos from the packed audience during his curtain call. 

Besides the three leads, this Catfish Row is a cavalcade of colorful characters that, as performed by the ensemble, could have each deserved his or her own rich musical. The opening clarion call of the iconic song “Summertime” was performed with steamy grace by Brittany Walker. Aundi Marie Moore’s lamentation of her husband’s death at the hand of Crown (“My Man’s Gone Now”) was an aural church of sorrow and suffering. And to round out this neighborhood bursting with strong female characters, Gwendolyn Brown’s Maria is a bright and sassy force of nature. Brown’s intimidation and attack against the sly and sleazy Sportin’ Life (played with bombast and addictive rebellion by Victor Ryan Robertson) in the short song “I hates yo’ struttin’ style” was a moment of light humor amid the deep drama typical of opera.

Robertson’s performance as Sportin’ Life was a charming trickster and deceiver; Catfish Row’s personal Loki, god of mischief. Robertson’s voice parallels the opera’s substantial character with his massive tenor dancing in the heights of the back row of the theater. His performance of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was a perverse sermon contesting the literal truth of the Bible among the God-fearing community. Robertson’s festive call and response to his flock spread throughout the audience. And as Robertson cried out his final note, the audience was on the brink of responding with a deserved amen and hallelujah along with the much deserved applause.

Syracuse Opera’s concert performance of Porgy and Bess was a virtual early birthday present to cap off its upcoming 40-year anniversary. During the curtain call, the special sense of the moment could be felt in the air. Douglas Kinney Frost, the opera’s fearless producing and artistic director as well as the conductor of the performance, led a standing ovation curtain call bowing, smiling and embracing those onstage. In that moment, with the company, conductor, director Hope Clarke, the Syracuse Opera Chorus, and the Symphoria orchestra bowing under the glow of the lights, the future of Syracuse arts seemed as bright and warm as a Charleston sunset.

Here’s to another 40 years. 

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