Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

ALBUM TITLE: Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
WORKS: Porgy and Bess
PERFORMER: Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell, Angel Blue, Lester Kynch, Chauncey Packer, Karen Slack; San Francisco Opera/John DeMain; dir. Francesco Zambello (San Francisco, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 2059638 Blu-ray: 2059634


Characterisations, settings, production style, the edition used: Gershwin’s great opera always seems to hit the headlines one way or another. In 2011, Stephen Sondheim famously complained in advance about tinkerings and softenings in Diane Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre production. Francesca Zambello’s earlier staging, caught here at San Francisco Opera in 2009, had a much easier ride, though the director’s fondness for hyper-realism and fussy activity on stage may still find its detractors. Extras and chorus in Catfish Row never find rest: men fiddle distractingly with fishing nets, boots are put on, always a carnival of gesture and movement. And all I wanted was to listen to Angel Blue, sweetly earnest, singing ‘Summertime’.

Still, Peter J Davidson’s rust-coloured Catfish set and Mark McCullough’s dynamic lighting give Zambello’s bustle an imposing frame. The singing is vigorous, breathing life into a musical edition of Gershwin’s operatic version, resurrected nearly 40 years ago at Houston Grand Opera by David Gockley, now SFO’s general director. John DeMain was conducting then, and his passion for the score hasn’t dimmed a jot. The orchestra crackles from the very first note. Eric Owens’s Porgy, too, immediately weighs in as a powerful presence – less crippled than other Porgys maybe, but full of the essential goodness and dignity. Provided you’re comfortable with waves of vibrato, Laquita Mitchell’s Bess radiates sufficient vocal heat, though her acting can be unfocused, especially alongside Karen Slack, whose Serena is magnificent in grief.

None has a problem jumping through this score’s many musical languages, from jazz to gospel to Broadway to Berg. And Chauncey Packer’s sinuous peacock of a ‘Sportin’ Life’ couldn’t be more alluring: I’d buy ‘happy dust’ from him immediately.


Geoff Brown