The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had a tiger by the tail Saturday; its performance of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” before a packed Strathmore audience received the longest, loudest ovation I have ever heard for this ensemble. Admittedly, much of it was for the singers, but still. Conductor Marin Alsop, director Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Morgan State University Choir and a dazzling cast brought the work to life in a “concert version” that lacked only stage scenery. The cast and chorus all performed “off the book,” fully acting out the parts, with costumes and props. It was a grand evening.
The ambivalence verging on discomfort this work often engenders (a Jewish composer’s setting of a white man’s novel portraying the denizens of a Charleston, S.C., ghetto in rampant gambling, drug abuse and immorality, complete with Gullah dialogue) fades when one simply listens to the score, awash in feeling and color.
Standouts in the cast included Larry D. Hylton (Sportin’ Life), whose sly sexiness almost distracted from a superbly flexible voice; Lester Lynch (Crown), who brought Wagnerian power to the role; Laquita Mitchell (Bess), whose rich voice seemed to grow ever more colorful as the evening went on; and Leah Hawkins (Serena), who combined pathos with a gleaming sound. Derrick Parker (Porgy) inhabited the role affectingly, but his instrument has more volume than beauty. The pleasing voice of Onadek Winan (Clara) was sound only, her diction quite indistinct.
I almost hesitate to opine on the artists’ vocal power, because all had body mics, and we were hearing a sound technician’s moment-to-moment idea of how loud they should be. This technology, plus projected supertitles (now ubiquitous in virtually any performance of a musical or opera) is slowly draining away the motivation singers have to project properly. I can’t imagine Alsop permitting this technology for a similar performance of “Tosca,” and none of these singers had small voices. Back in the day, if a singer had trouble being heard, the conductor simply quieted the orchestra. But things are different now, and I wish to register a protest.
No complaints, though, about the chorus, which swayed, danced, clapped and sang with real fervor; its energy was at “11” throughout the production. Alsop handled the large forces behind and in front of her with calm professionalism. This was certainly a highlight of the season.