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‘Porgy and Bess’ had many problems at Hylton Performing Arts

While it would be an exaggeration to describe Thursday’s performance of “Porgy & Bess” excerpts at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas as a disaster, the evening was much, much less than it could have been.

Lorin Maazel’s world-class Castleton Festival, hampered by distance from population centers and difficulty of access via cramped country roads, is seeking to enlarge its footprint. This “Porgy” was the first of three events at the Hylton this summer; last week, the group was at Strathmore and the festival is popping up in places such as Berkeley, Calif., Toronto and even Beijing. Here in the District, Castleton has virtually taken over WETA-FM in both ads and programming.

Thursday’s performance was an opulent and amateurish affair. Maazel’s presence guaranteed high-quality musicmaking, the singers performed impressively, and the large, hard-working festival orchestra rose to the challenge. But there were no surtitles, and the program contained no texts, numbers or even notice of which singers were in which roles. “Summertime” took on additional poignancy as patrons shivered in the hall’s arctic chill.

But the discomfort didn’t last long, as the concert — perhaps a dozen numbers — was over in less than an hour, or it would have been but for the interruption from a high-pitched, electronic whine that marred nearly half of the performance (what WETA is going to do about that for its broadcast of the concert remains to be seen). The performance was halted and a plea made from the stage for everyone to please check their electronic devices. When the problem was resolved, one number was repeated and we still got out around 9.

As for the music, tenor Chauncey Packer (as Sportin’ Life) was the star of the show; both his singing and movements were polished and confident. In the title roles, Patrick Blackwell and Reyna Carguill were pleasing but two-dimensional; Carguill’s voice lacks warmth and was uncertain of pitch early on. John Fulton seemed good, but was often buried by the orchestra. Best of all was the Festival Chorus, which hurled out great peals of sound, particularly in “Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way.”

Battey is a freelance writer.

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