A joyful Porgy and Bess at the Lucerne Festival

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [2] – Gershwin, Porgy and Bess (concert performance): Soloists, NDR Vokalensemble, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester / Alan Gilbert (conductor). Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL) Luzern, Lucerne, 25.8.2022. (JR)

Alan Gilbert conducts soloists and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Porgy and Bess at Lucerne © Peter Fischli/LF

Morris RobinsonPorgy
Latonia MooreSerena
Elizabeth Llewellyn – Bess
Lester Lynch – Crown
Norman GarrettJake / Simon Frazier
Golda Schultz – Clara
Cameo Humes – Robbins, Mingo / Peter / Crab salesman
Tichina Vaughn – Maria, Lily / Annie / Strawberry vendor
Chauncey Packer – Sportin’ Life
Fjodor Olev – Detective / Coroner / Policeman
Kenneth Kula – Jim
Luvo Rasemeni – Undertaker 

The Festival’s theme this year is ‘Diversity’; this concert surely fitted the bill. Despite its portrayal of deprivation, poverty, jealousy and its main character being a disabled black beggar living in the slums, a performance of Porgy and Bess is always a delight; one hit number follows another, although the final act does not live up to its predecessors for entertainment and melody.

It always puzzles me how this jewel of a work remained unperformed at the Met for fifty years after its composition in 1935. I will not discuss here whether Porgy is an opera or a musical, it is certainly a melting pot of American art in operatic form; Gershwin himself called it a ‘folk opera’. The Gershwins insisted, by the way, that the opera be performed only by black singers – and not done in what nowadays would be considered offensive blackface – and this opera has helped generations of black singers to perform on some of the world’s greatest stages.

This was not a semi-staged performance, it was a concert performance with added extras: costumes for the main protagonists, and a couple of props. Porgy had a crutch. There was some physical contact between the singers, and they moved around the hall for added spatial effect. This went awry when one of the male singers, stage right on one of the upper balconies, dressed in black, was unlit and virtually invisible. The horseshoe shape of the hall also meant that singers on the upper galleries could hardly be seen by those seated above them.

The singing was par excellence across the board. I expected no less, given the star-studded international line up, which included Latonia Moore, Golda Schultz and Elizabeth Llewellyn in the major roles.

South African soprano Golda Schultz (artiste étoile at the Lucerne Festival this summer) launched into ‘Summertime’ soon after the work opened; it was pure liquid gold, with the bonus of a long, last high note. Elizabeth Llewellyn is British, born to Jamaican parents; she has sung the role of Bess at the Met. Her thrilling top notes pierced the air like cut glass; her acting most touching. Houston-born soprano Latonia Moore has sung Bess for Sir Simon Rattle, but here she was, in less prominent a role, as Serena; yet another star singer. Tichina Vaughn almost stole the show with her various roles; her acting skills and versatile voice were to the fore.

Morris Robinson hails from Atlanta; his bass is deep, rich and resonant. He made a believable disabled Porgy. His ‘I got plenty of nuttin” had oodles of swing. Chauncey Parker as Sportin’ Life has great comedic talent and a flexible tenor; his ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ was a vocal and visual breeze. Lester Lynch as Crown was suitably gruff, brutal and virile. Cameo Humes sang his ‘cameo’ roles with ease; other more minor roles were well filled. Quite why we needed a Russian actor to play the part of the American cop was beyond me; his fake accent grated on the ear and was nigh incomprehensible.

There were surtitles, but only in German. Many Swiss can speak tolerable English and could have followed the actual words; but clarity of diction was mixed, better heard in the Stalls than in the upper galleries according to my reports, so having the text displayed in English would have been beneficial.

The chorus (NDR Vokalensemble) stood in the choir seats high above the stage, not in costume. They swayed, clapped and raised their hands to the Lord in appropriate places and pretended to be native Southerners. Some convinced me more than others. Some of the soloists were placed in the crowd to add colour, in every sense. The singing of the chorus was exemplary; I noticed from the curtain call that the chorus master had been brought in for this piece specially (he was not named in the programme, as far as I could see). This is not regular repertoire for the chorus, of course, but they entered into its spirit with abandon and visible glee (well, some of them).

The same can be said of the North German Radio orchestra, whose name now reflects its new home at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Much rehearsal time had clearly been dedicated to the work’s jazzy opening complete with honky-tonk piano; percussion and brass had a whale of a time.

Alan Gilbert is clearly a great fan of the work, his enthusiasm was palpable. Morris Robinson watched him like a hawk and Gilbert held it all together. The final spiritual ‘I’m on my way to the Promised Land’ brought the house down.

Gilbert and these forces now take the performance to the Elbphilharmonie and then to Kiel to close the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. It has certainly been a highlight of the Lucerne Festival, so far.

 John Rhodes

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