Porgy and Bess Returns to Geneva

SwitzerlandSwitzerland George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess, Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the New York Harlem Theater, William Barkhymer (conductor), Grand Théâtre de Genève, 13.2.2015 (AL)Porgy-500

Porgy: Alvy Powell
Bess: Morenike Fadayomi
Crown: Michael Redding
Sportin’ Life: Jermaine Smith
Clara: Heather Hill
Serena: Mari-Yan Pringle
Jake: John Fulton
Maria: Marjorie Wharton

Director: Baayork Lee
Sets: Michael Scott
Costumes: Christina Giannini
Lighting: Reinhard Traub


While Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is touring in the United States, the Geneva Grand Théâtre invited the New York Harlem Theater for a series of no less than 12 performances of Porgy and Bess that runs until the end of February. This work has not been performed in Geneva since 1978, and the theater was packed for the premiere.

The musicians all displayed a strong sense of familiarity and of ensemble playing. Porgy and Bess is an ambitious opera of great variety which is not limited to its many hits. While I was not aware of the New York Harlem Theater, the naturalness and the strong characterizations on stage made one assume that this must be for them a signature piece.

As is often the case with American productions, the staging was “traditional but effective.” Some of the more dramatic scenes could have benefited from more density, but director Baayork Lee made an imaginative use of lighting and showed care for the dancing/singing part of the work. She was at her best in the many crowd scenes which were clearly staged and musically coherent.

The program did not gave the names of the cast in smaller roles. Of these, Robbins, who gets killed early, had a nice tone and was a strong figure. While on stage, the crab salesman stole the scene with his few lines. The chorus was superb: powerful, and they can dance and sing too. There were a few moments when one might have wished for the orchestra under William Barkhymer to bring out more details, but as the evening progressed, the playing grew in confidence and everyone worked well together.

The Grand Théâtre stage is quite wide, and on the whole the men struggled to project. Jermaine Smith had problems with his high tessitura; Michael Redding had physical presence but was overpowered in the ensembles. The diction and phrasing of Alvy Powell’s Porgy indicated how thoroughly he knows the part, but his singing was often cautious and lacked a certain ring. Maria and Serena had to tone down their voices in the final trio to balance with Porgy.

The women had the upper hand here. Marjorie Wharton, herself a former Serena, had fun with her aria and displayed authority. Mari-Yan Pringle as Serena has a huge voice which she used to wonderful dramatic effect. Heather Hill’s light soprano was delightful. As we all know, it is she and not Bess who has the huge responsibility of the first “Summertime,” and she contrasted well with the rendering by Morenike Fadoyami’s Bess in the second half. Fadoyami had sang in the recent production of La Wally in Geneva, and her familiarity with this stage was visible. Her phrasing was superb; she used her large voice to dramatic effect and had a strong presence.

For many, hearing the work live on stage and in its entirety may have been a premiere: one could appreciate the originality and strength of Gershwin’s music. The words and music had a flow that paralleled the ease of Puccini. Scenes like the mourning of Robbins and the Storm were dramatic, modern and ambitious. One may have wished that a few scenes offered more characterization (in particular when Sportin’ Life convinces Bess to take drugs, a key scene which went a little too fast), but the variety in the characters spoke volumes on the strength of Gershwin as an operatic composer.

I took my entire family to this performance. My two teen-agers (16 and 19, definitely a demanding age), who rarely come with us, enjoyed it very much and felt in their world. What more can I add ?

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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