Porgy and Bess: Tour or jailbreak?

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With nobody I recognized from Opera Carolina at the touring production of Porgy and Bess for the May 15 performance, it took five days to determine who actually sang the key roles. Since there was an insert in the program announcing Kenneth Overton as Porgy, I was pretty confident in that sector. But there were a slew of substitutions announced at Belk Theater prior to the first act, two Besses listed in the program, and a substitute for Sportin’ Life at the start of Act 2, when Reggie Whitehead became indisposed. Or rather, admitted to what was evident long before.

My patience and caution were rewarded when Op Carolina artistic director James Meena shot me an e-mail last Thursday. As it turned out, Overton hadn’t sung on Saturday. Nor did either of the other two Porgys listed in the program. Frederick Jackson, who normally has no solos playing Jim, filled in as Porgy while Charles Jason Freeman stepped in as Jim. My Bess was Donita Volkwijn, the first of the two in the program, and Sean T. Miller spelled Whitehead as the wily Sportin’ Life after intermission.

Toss in the technical difficulties that kept the Act 2 curtain from rising until the fourth or fifth attempt – obliging conductor Pacien Mazzagatti to call for a restart from the orchestra pit – and you have a major embarrassment for Michael Capasso and Willette Murphy Klausner, producers of this 75th Anniversary Tour, and Opera Carolina, who booked it. Traditional concepts of a touring company carry with them the presumption that the company’s members travel together from city to city as they perform.

So where were the two Porgys listed in the program, Kevin Short and Patrick Blackwell, when one of them couldn’t go on and their announced replacement, Overton, became unavailable? It was as if the two had been kidnapped and imprisoned by the tour, making a break for it after opening night in Charlotte.

Perhaps I’ve minimized how ridiculous this all was, giving off the impression that I saw a fourth-string Porgy perform as a result of this tour’s lack of organization and professionalism. Truth is, the press release I received from New York on April 13 ballyhooed North Carolina School of the Arts grad Leonard Rowe as Porgy. Yes, that’s #5 if you’ve kept count.

Rowe is actually quoted in the PR. Time has added the irony.

“This is an innovative production with a cast eager to tell this wonderful story of love and hope.”

Considering that he has to move about onstage on either a primitive sledge or a pair of crutches most of the time, Jackson overachieved as a fifth-string Porgy. He clearly can act, as the volcanic force of his dramatic confrontations with Crown late in Act 2 demonstrated. Jackson can also sing operatically, but here’s the catch: he can’t do both at the same time. Whenever Jackson reached one of Porgy’s signature arias – say, “I Got Pleny of Nuttin’” or “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” – his ability to put expression into his words vanished into hollow air. Not a trace of eagerness. The fact that he was usually on his sledge, on his knees, at these times added a deflating choirboy effect.

I didn’t mind that Volkwijn didn’t stun me with her wantonness and allure as Bess. After all, she protests to Crown that she’s past her prime, and Catfish Row isn’t exactly Hollywood. But I preferred the singing of Sequina Dubose as Clara, the young mother who lulls her babe with “Summertime” to open the show and sparks an ensemble or two later on.

Whitehead would have been a rare treat if he were in better voice, for he danced his devilish “It Ain’t Necessarily So” spectacularly. Two really good and able men actually showed up for a full evening’s work. Bass baritone Phillip Boykin was easily the most formidable Crown that I’ve seen in live performance, with biceps that clearly warrant Bess’s “look what arms you got” exclamations, and he put the most profane raunch into “A Red-Headed Woman” that I’ve heard. Among the supporting characters, Eric McKeever was the standout as Clara’s husband Jake, singing his own brand of lullaby in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” and impressively leading his fellow fishermen in “It Take a Long Pull.”

With that, I circle back to Rowe. He has also sung the role of Jake – on the world premiere recording of the original 1935 version of P&G on Decca Records, with a cast that includes Alvy Powell, Marquita Lister, Robert Mack, and Nicole Cabell. All of those names may be familiar to you. Cabell, a rising superstar on the international scene, was Juliet in Gounod’s opera at Spoleto in 2006 after winning the BBC Singer of the World competition. The other three have appeared here in Opera Carolina productions over the past six years, with Powell as Porgy and Mack as Sportin’ Life at the Belk in 2004, the same roles they would sing on the Decca recording two years later with the Nashville Symphony.

Point is, the 75th Anniversary tour could have fielded a better cast. Opera Carolina already has. With fewer screw-ups.

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