"Porgy and Bess," the ground-breaking opera by three white men who somehow managed to create an affecting slice of African-American life in South Carolina, seems only to gain in worth after more than 80 years. Whatever its flaws — stereotyping being the most obvious — the piece still works wonderfully, as much for its musical power as for its theatrical impact.
Even a semi-staged version of "Porgy" that cuts some of the music, skips the spoken dialogue and lacks the full trappings of sets and costumes can be a big draw, as witnessed Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The place was packed for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's presentation, which featured a sizzling cast and the invaluable Morgan State University Choir, and the response could not have been much more demonstratively enthusiastic.
BSO music director Marin Alsop, such a natural when it comes to the prismatic, rhythmically charged music of George Gershwin, had the score flowing with terrific sweep and nuance on Friday.
Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah provided the astute stage direction, concentrating on the strengths of the libretto by DuBose Heyward (he and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics). Making full use of the small space available in front of the orchestra, Kwei-Armah generated a true sense of theater, fueled by vivid portrayals from the principal singers and a good deal of effective acting from members of the chorus. (The director was in the house, but did not take a bow after the performance; he deserved one.)
You knew things were clicking with the audience when applause broke out at the demise of the opera's chief villain, tough guy Crown (a rich-voiced Lester Lynch), who isn't about to give up his Bess (the sexy, vocally radiant Laquita Mitchell), especially not to the crippled Porgy (the dynamic Derrick Parker).
There were real sparks flying, sparks that helped make it clear why Bess and Crown had such a fierce attraction (things nearly got into R-rated territory onstage at one point), but also why Bess could be drawn just as easily into Porgy's humbler, gentler orbit. Mitchell and Parker sculpted their duets with particular eloquence.
After seeing any number of "Porgy and Bess" productions over the years, I didn't expect to be so stirred by the final scene, when Porgy decides to head for New York in search of the mercurial Bess. But Parker's intensely focused acting and singing achieved downright heart-tugging results.
Also leaving a sizable imprint was Larry D. Hylton as the irresistibly oily drug peddler Sportin' Life. The tenor's bright tone and vibrant articulation hit home throughout; he and Parker also added some effective flourishes to their numbers. As Clara, Onadek Winan sculpted "Summertime" warmly. Leah Hawkins, as Serena, impressed mightily with her plush tone and impeccable phrasing in the wrenching "My Man's Gone Now."
A few tentative entrances aside, the Morgan State chorus, directed by Eric Conway, was in sterling form, producing a smoothly blended sound and admirable expressive subtlety. And through it all, the BSO offered hot playing that made the familiar score sound newly minted.