A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 31, 2014
01:27 PMClassically Speaking
At Last, Madison Can Hear DeMain’s “Porgy” and See It, Too
PHOTO COURTESY OF NAXOS RECORDS
The cover of the San Francisco Opera 2009 production of "Porgy and Bess," in DVD and Blu-Ray
Every bio of Madison Symphony music director, and Madison Opera artistic director mentions it: John DeMain’s conducting of the Houston Grand Opera 1976 production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was a milestone in his career and the growth of Houston Grand Opera. But the list of awards that followed only hint at the magnitude of the event, particularly in shaping DeMain’s vocational path. He was early in his career as conductor with Texas Opera Theater, an adjunct of HGO, when he first heard that Porgy and Bess—which had never been staged complete—might be produced by HGO as part of the American bicentennial year. Just thirty-one at the time, DeMain convinced the equally young company director, David Gockley, that he was the person to conduct it. Aside from the Grand Prix du Disque prize that the subsequent recording garnered, and the Tony award when they took it to New York, the 1976 Porgy triggered a series of ripples that impacted both conductor and company for decades.
But of course, Madison Opera has never had the resources to mount it that way, and we have had to content ourselves with hour-long concert excerpts such as DeMain programmed to close the MSO season a couple of seasons ago. But among the now hundreds of performances DeMain has led in the last thirty-eight years, was a 2009 production at San Francisco Opera (which Gockley has led since 2005). Released in February through SFO’s house label, and distributed through Naxos, we can all finally see how this greatest of American operas (sorry, Jake Heggie!) unfolds under DeMain’s stimulating musical direction, plus gain additional insight from an additional half hour of bonus material with insights from DeMain, Gockley, director Francesca Zambello and the principal singers.
To be clear, this is not the production that sizzled in Houston, rocked New York City and then toured nationally in the mid-to-late 1970s. That production was directed by Jack O’Brien, with sets from Los Angeles Civic Theater, and the stage version still made some musical cuts to keep the performance within three hours. (The 1976 recording was uncut).
This new video testament was captured at San Francisco Opera in June 2009 and was directed by Francesca Zambello (a frequent operatic collaborator with DeMain since the Houston days). Zambello updates the action to circa 1950, with Catfish Row almost a wharf-like setting, with a hint of a Coney Island rollercoaster in the distant background as a stand-in for Kittiwah Island. But the look is never jarring or disconcerting, primarily because the feeling of the community is vivid and intact from the opening moments.
The opera triumphs or falls largely on the strength of its core quartet; if Porgy lacks chemistry with Bess, if Crown doesn't exude palpable menace and if Sportin’ Life isn't too likable at times, then “plenty o’nuttin” is the inevitable result. Happily this cast is packed with strong actors who can sing, and vice versa. Eric Owens's Porgy easily moves from tender to tough, and the Bess of Laquita Mitchell careens quickly from lustful/addicted to genuinely tender/repentant. Lester Lynch as Crown is an irresistible force of evil, and Chauncey Packer pulls off the neat trick of making Sportin’ Life a fresh and familiar character.
The one thing the 1976 and 2009 productions have in common, of course, is the man in the pit, John DeMain. As we have heard in Madison Symphony programs, DeMain has this unique musical language in his blood—to a degree arguably unequalled by any other conductor of his time. The ease of navigation between the lyricism of “Summertime” and the street cred strutting of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with the Verdian rise of the duets “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Bess” may be no surprise, but is nonetheless wonderful to experience again.
But what grabs the viewer/listener again and again—and builds cumulatively over and over—are the chorus numbers. Here is the operatic sweep that catches most first time complete “Porgy” watchers unaware, and DeMain’s understanding of the chorus as a functioning character, and his mastery in marshaling the forces with a sure and accurate hand, is the major element that sets the performance apart. This DVD is a document that beneath the surface testifies what all the fuss was about nearly forty (and eighty!) years ago, and will reward on repeated viewings both those who experience Porgy and Bess for the first time as an opera, and those who already have it in their hearts and ears.