When the chorus of Porgy and Bess sang "It take a long pull to get there," it spoke for the hard-working characters onstage, the opera's authors, George and Ira Gershwin, but also for many in Opera Company of Philadelphia's audience at the Friday opening. Porgy and Bess is often a long pull, but this one seemed eternal.
The production was a revival of OCP's breakthrough success in 2001 that reached an artistic Promised Land and put the company on a roll that spilled over into its core repertoire. That's why Friday's performance challenged one's reactions. Was it that good in 2001? Was it that slow now?
Individual elements Friday were often first-rate. The opera was judiciously cut: The dramatically inert "Buzzard Song" was gone but the high-attitude "I Hates Yo' Struttin' Style" welcomely remained. The Patricia Scott Hobbs Broadway-style choreography was OK, but belonged in a different show.
Singing ranged from excellent to indelible. How many P&B casts feature two world-class Aidas - Angela Brown as Bess and Lisa Daltirus as Serena - plus healthy competition between the two?
Bess has more stage time, and Brown won't let you forget it, with twice the necessary physical stage business needed to establish her as a good-time girl whose charm is being eclipsed by her age. Daltirus' grieving-for-her-dead-husband scene with "My Man's Gone Now" had an arresting helden-scream and phrase readings that turned the song into a three-act Greek tragedy - aided by her chiseled-in-granite carriage.
The contrast was exciting, Brown being a tone-based singer (she was particularly resplendent), Daltirus a word-based one, a fine artist becoming finer. Also, the two singers symbolically anchored the opera with twin polarities, the sensual (Brown) and the moral (Daltirus).
Gregg Baker's baritone fit the role of Porgy almost perfectly, and his acting choices gave the character intelligence and dignity. Faced with a police interrogation in Act I, Baker's Porgy stonewalls with art and determination, deflecting without provoking a self-defeating challenge. Anybody singing this opera has to personalize songs that have all but achieved folk status in our culture; Baker failed to do so in his otherwise nicely sung "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin.' " Similarly, Steven Cole's portrayal of drug dealing Sportin' Life was subtly menacing in recitatives, but the showstopping "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York" didn't climax. As Clara, Karen Slack has some great music but was strangely anonymous.
Freedom Theater's Walter Dallas had great stage directing ideas: After the comic scene where Bess gets a fake buck-fifty divorce from her ex-boyfriend, she and Porgy turned into a pair of sweet, shy teenagers looking off in opposite directions before decisively shedding any lingering emotional barriers. That gave a hushed, almost sacred aura to what followed, the musically glorious vow-taking that is "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Elsewhere, crowd scenes often seemed either puny or unfocused. Exits were problematic, especially at the final curtain when Porgy wheels off to New York on his cart, the physical mechanics of which showed only Baker's posterior. That lacked the heroism the moment called for.
These aren't major problems; the bigger buck stopped at conductor Stefan Lano. His expansive, symphonic tempos weren't supported by the necessary amplitude of sound, particularly with an orchestra struggling to keep chords in tune. Rhythmic animation was nearly absent. Gershwin's rather-too-fancy orchestration is full of atmosphere, but little of that - even the early-morning tranquillity of the street-vendor music - was heard Friday. The biggest problem was lack of tension and release that robbed the piece of peaks or valleys. And what's an opera without that?
Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward. Directed by Walter Dallas, designed by Felix E. Cochren Jr., choreography by Patricia Scott Hobbs, conducted by Stefan Lano.
Karen Slack (Clara)
Steven Cole (Sportin' Life)
Lisa Daltirus (Serena)
Gregg Baker (Porgy)
Lester Lynch (Crown)
Angela Brown (Bess)
DonLeroy Morales (Crabman)
Julie Ann Whitely (Strawberry Woman)
Playing at the Academy of Music Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Feb 24. Tickets: $6 to $195. Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphilly.com.