The evening of February 17th, 2018 marked a momentous occasion in music history in preserving the legacy of George and Ira Gershwin.
Years of scholarly research and months of rehearsal culminated in a sold-out Hill Auditorium performance of the complete “Porgy and Bess,” a 4-hour-long evening that featured the University Symphony Orchestra, University Chamber Choir, the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale, and a cast of award-winning soloists from around the world. Together, these large forces created a deeply moving production that honored the composer’s original intentions.
The opera wrestles with topics that are (in many cases, unfortunately still) relevant to today: racism, abusive relationships, hope, addiction, shame, community, joy, loss, and rejection. Consisting of 3 acts and two intermissions, packed with catchy tunes, gorgeous arias, and a heart-wrenching plot, it is a beast to perform for everyone involved (the second act alone is a whopping 1.5 hours long). Beyond his demands for endurance, Gershwin’s intricate and flashy score calls for professional-level performance for both the orchestra and chorus. The chorus, playing the part of an engaged band of citizens, commented on the action in bouts of virtuosity after not singing for long periods of time, which was quite impressive. Gershwin’s orchestration for the opera is often lush and rousing, but just as easily jumps to exposed, virtuosic solos that the members of the University Symphony Orchestra absolutely nailed.
The production’s leads did not disappoint. Morris Robinson’s Porgy was powerful in voice yet genteel in manner. Talise Tevigne’s honey-sweet soprano voice brought innocence and simplicity into the role of Bess. Norman Garrett played the villainous character of Crown with an irresistible smoothness. Chauncey Packer brought polish and electricity to the role of Sporting Life. Janai Brugger’s Clara was matronly and charismatic. Rehanna Thelwell, now pursuing a Specialist’s Degree from the University of Michigan, absolutely shined as a spunky and spirit-filled Maria. Other UM grad students held their own alongside professionals in the industry, bringing vitality, power, and deep feeling into every aspect of their performance.
This semi-staged production truly showcased the best of the best at the University of Michigan’s School of Music. The fact that I felt engaged for the entire opera, even without costumes, sets, and blocking, is a testament to the talent of the performers and the dramatic integrity of the score on its own. There were moments where the supertitles blandly relayed important plot events, and the audience members were left to use their own imaginations, but it was easy to do so given the highly evocative music. While there were definitely a few scenes that I could imagine a director choosing to cut, I was still appreciative of the opportunity to hear the opera in its entirety, and I was glad to see that much of the audience stayed for the entire performance.
This experience brought me a heightened sense of what I typically feel after watching a live opera: I am always deeply moved by witnessing the summation of collaboration at the highest and most intricate level, and the amount of work, focus, talent, and heart it takes to pull something so monumental off. But after this production, I felt this way to an even greater degree. I feel proud to go to a school where world-class scholars and performers collaborate to create beautiful things together.