The mystery of live performance was even more mysterious at the first subscription concert: a repeat of the memorable 2011 Tanglewood concert version of Porgy and Bess, with essentially the same excellent personnel (and the one cast change — soprano Angel Blue as Clara, who sings "Summertime" — was for the better). Marquita Lister's searing rendition of "My Man's Gone Now" was still the great moment (was the audience too timid or too stunned to applaud?). Tenor Jermaine Smith returned as the slick, slithery Sportin' Life. Beloved Boston veteran baritone Robert Honeysucker repeated his small comic role as lawyer Frazier, who tries to sell the unmarried Bess a divorce. The BSO played superbly. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singing from memory, re-created the lively, loose-limbed community of Catfish Row. But the Symphony Hall version, at least at the first performance, didn't survive the change of venue. Why was all the excitement at Tanglewood missing?
Porgy and Bess really benefits from a full orchestra and chorus. The size gives George Gershwin's score a kind of tragic grandeur. But the large onstage orchestra (that is, not in a pit) can obliterate words, even though the solo singers have strong voices. Some of the intricacies of the Porgy plot are hard to follow. Supertitles would have helped. Instead, the voices were electronically amplified, and that decision was catastrophic. At Tanglewood, amplification seems pretty standard in order for voices to carry to 5000 people in an outdoor setting. But at Symphony Hall, with its legendary warm and natural acoustics, the amplification created a distorted, directionless sound for the singers, without being clear enough to get words across. In a nice little coup de théatre, the Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man did their vending from the center aisle of the hall. But their voices were coming from elsewhere. Opera at Symphony Hall is usually amplified to some extent, but this time the voices sounded artificial and muzzy.
British conductor Bramwell Tovey obviously loves this score — during the overture, he leapt off the podium and pounded away at a "prepared" honky-tonk upright piano. He leads with slashing vigor. But this time, at least partly because of the sound system, the intimate moments got lost. Everything felt loud and rushed, gutted of true feeling. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker (who'll be singing the title role in Boston Lyric Opera's The Flying Dutchman in April), such a dignified and warm-hearted Porgy at Tanglewood, a singer who seemed to be living his part, didn't seem to be connecting with his Bess, soprano Laquita Mitchell, whose voice was lovely but who lacked the conflicted desperation that made Audra McDonald's Tony Award-winning Bess in the ART version so devastating. It was all a big disappointment, and I can't say I blame the large section of the audience that departed at intermission.
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