It's wonderful to be back on Catfish Row," said Todd Duncan, standing in front of a capacity audience gathered in the Lyric Opera House tonight for the Baltimore Opera's new production of "Porgy and Bess."
Duncan, 80, the bass baritone who sang the role of Porgy in the original 1935 cast of Gershwin's masterpiece, was the guest of honor on opening night and this production was dedicated to him.
"I'm still a ham," he told the wildly applauding audience. "Please don't applaud any more. If you do, I'll go back to the dressing room and give Porgy a sleeping potion and I'll sing the role."
Duncan looked as if he could have done it, but it was not really necessary with Donnie Ray Albert, the definitive Porgy of this generation, heading the generally strong cast. "Donnie Ray Albert is Porgy," Duncan said after the performance.
The opera had a few rough spots on opening night. Some of the singers in minor roles still seem relatively inexperienced, but most of the problems were matters of timing, polish and balance that should be ironed out in the four remaining performances through next Tuesday evening. Despite small flaws, this production conveys the essential power in this story of sudden death, grinding poverty and oppression, and love and hope that persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
In the role of Bess, soprano Esther Hinds took a while for her voice to warm up but was in splendid form by the time of the climactic duet, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." After the title roles, and Jonathan Sprague in the strong supporting role of Crown, the most striking element in this production is probably the chorus--an extraordinary group of voices, adept in all of the opera's shifting moods from boisterous high spirits to superstitious fear and passive defiance of the white power structure.
Sometimes the stage movements of the chorus were not as well coordinated as their voices, and several dance numbers were not as well handled, on the whole, as the music. But this production nonetheless conveyed strongly the feeling of a community of real human beings facing a hard life together.
Several singers were excellent in supporting roles, notably Betti McDonald as Serena and Barbara Mahajan, who rose to real eloquence in the role of Maria during her big song "Laying Down the Law to Sportin' Life." This role was filled distinctively and with a certain polish by Clyde Williams, but it lacked some of the insinuating, evil charm that other singers have found in this unique character. Ivan Thomas brought real distinction to the small role of Jake.
Conductor Richard Buckley, making his first appearance with the Baltimore Opera, paced the production well, sustained its momentum and kept the orchestra in good balance to the voices.
This is only the second time "Porgy and Bess" has played in Baltimore (the last time was in 1941), but the music and story are universally known and loved, and obviously found a knowledgeable, appreciative audience. On the whole, this production deserved the enthusiastic reaction it received and did justice to one of the classics of American musical theater.