An opera’s rising tide presumably lifts all boats, which has been helpful for the Boston Symphony Orchestra when it comes to “Porgy and Bess.” The public’s interest in Gershwin’s classic American opera crested this year, as Diane Paulus’s new adaptation was incubated at the American Repertory Theater, attacked in The New York Times, and transferred to Broadway for an extended run. Even Michelle Obama dropped by.
Whether by dint of savvy scheduling, or as a complete coincidence, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has sandwiched the Paulus production, presenting a fuller concert performance of Gershwin’s opera at Tanglewood in August 2011, just days before the Paulus version opened in Cambridge. And on Thursday night, the same week that the Paulus show closed on Broadway over a year later, the BSO reprised its own “Porgy” in Symphony Hall, bringing back the English conductor Bramwell Tovey and many of the same vocal soloists from two summers ago, including Alfred Walker and Laquita Mitchell in the title roles.
The earlier Tanglewood performance — especially the work of the vocal soloists and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus — came across as charged and vital, even at times majestic. The stripped-down Paulus version that I saw packed far less musical punch, and I was looking forward to experiencing the BSO’s “Porgy” once more, in all its symphonic fullness.
What a shame then that the BSO marred Thursday’s performance with a relatively heavy use of amplification in Symphony Hall. It was a mystery why these operatically trained singers, in this acoustically superb venue, were having their voices projected through speakers mounted high above the stage, often ruling out any subtle interplay with the orchestra or chorus, and sometimes completely covering entire sections of the BSO. Whatever amplification was used at Tanglewood certainly worked far better in that space.
Still, even with some of the subtler musical pleasures of Gershwin’s score unavailable, and with limited intelligibility of diction, one could still register the charismatic singing of this capable cast as well as the vibrant dramatic participation of the TFC.
Walker brought a warm bass-baritone and a noble, sympathetic bearing to the character of Porgy, and Mitchell sang Bess with admirably liquid phrasing. Jermaine Smith reprised his sleekly kinetic performance as the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, Marquita Lister brought a welcome vocal intensity to Serena, and Gwendolyn Brown once more inhabited the role of Maria. Gregg Baker again made a forceful Crown, and Angel Blue a fine Clara. The many smaller roles were also well-handled.
On the podium, Tovey approaches “Porgy” with idiomatic flair, but the BSO’s playing Thursday night lacked the sharpness of definition and grandness of profile to truly compete on equal footing with the voices. The crowd in Symphony Hall still gave the performance a warm ovation, though nothing like the rapturous reception it received at Tanglewood.