[image-1]Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Spoleto Festival USA is an international arts festival. For some Charlestonians, Spoleto can often feel like just another event in our packed calendar, even though for others it’s the most anticipated event of the year — you can count me among the latter.

But for those who have a decidedly blasé feeling about Spoleto, it may come as some shock that arts lovers around the nation and across the world are very much interested in our city’s premier arts festival. And this year is no different, with media outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, the Charlotte Observer to the Financial Times of London all having a little something to say about this year’s offerings. At the top of the list is Spoleto’s production of the Gershwin-Heyward classic Porgy and Bess. 

First up the Charlotte Observer. Lawerence Toppman writes:

“Porgy and Bess” had to wait 40 years for Spoleto to give it the attention it deserved. (Well, almost all the attention: The festival chose not to use supertitles, so anyone who doesn’t know DuBose Heyward’s libretto will frequently be lost.) Small sections have been cut, notably Porgy’s “Buzzard Song,” and one of the two intermissions has been dropped to shorten your stay in Gaillard Center. What’s left flies by over more than three hours, giving pleasure in every scene.

The terrific Lester Lynch sets the tone as Porgy with excellent diction, jovial humor and a sense of deep pathos that belongs to the crippled beggar called “a piece of a man” by Sportin’ Life (cheerfully sleazy Victor Ryan Robertson, a fine Almaviva in Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” seven years ago).

There’s no weak link in the cast, from Alyson Cambridge’s poignant Bess and Eric Greene’s malevolently sexy Crown down to street criers selling honey, strawberries and deviled crabs. The Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, which makes up half the chorus, sang and acted with beauty and conviction.

Director David Herskovits and painter Green, who designed both set and costumes, can claim a large share of the triumph. They let the region’s Gullah influences creep into the show slowly, until those take over at last in a riot of color that gives Catfish Row a sense of unity.

James R. Oestreich of the New York Times also sung the opera’s praises, writing:

 It took 40 years, but the Spoleto Festival USA has finally claimed its birthright, George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” and done it in high style. On Friday evening, the festival opened a beautiful new production with an excellent cast and striking visual design by Jonathan Green in the resplendently renovated Charleston Gaillard Center…

Mr. Green, himself Gullah, drew extensively on West African motifs in his visual design. His concepts are evocatively carried through in the sets, designed by Carolyn Mraz, and costumes, by Annie Simon…

The production was well worth waiting for. David Herskovits directs a large cast, invaluably including the concert choir of the Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, N.C. The communal singing throughout was superb.

Standout performers were many: Lester Lynch as Porgy, the sturdy cripple, and Alyson Cambridge as Bess, the warmhearted (and here, warm-voiced) prostitute he loves; Courtney Johnson as Clara (who sang an ethereal “Summertime”); Victor Ryan Robertson, as Sportin’ Life, the “happy dust” dealer; and Eric Greene as Crown, Bess’s current lover, in a menacing portrayal. So menacing, in fact, that there were pockets of applause when Porgy broke Crown’s neck…

The opera effectively displayed the acoustics of the revamped hall, which was designed by Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks. The acoustics of the Gaillard, which has been in use since October, are vastly improved, though not so much that supertitles would not have been welcome in “Porgy.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson offered up a review that looked at the challenges facing the work, bring up the very timely issue of cultural appropriation on the part of George Gershwin and Charleston’s DuBose Heyward. Waleson notes:

The festival approached both potential pitfalls by engaging Jonathan Green, a local artist who was born in a Gullah community, as visual designer for the production. Mr. Green’s exuberantly colorful vision, executed by set designer Carolyn Mraz, costume designer Annie Simon, and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, suggested that Catfish Row was a vibrant West African transplant rather than a downtrodden slum shadowed by the legacy of slavery.

The overlay worked. The set, with its recognizable Charleston buildings— one brick, with an archway and a wrought-iron gate; one wooden, with an open balcony—sprouted diamond-pattern decorations on their walls and shutters as the show went on, giving things an exotic look. So, too, did the costumes, whose brightly printed fabrics and elaborately tied headwraps would have looked right at home in a marketplace in Ghana. The white costumes for the picnic on Kittiwah Island channeled Alvin Ailey’s spiritual-based dance “Revelations” and underscored the scene’s festive mood, while Sportin’ Life’s pink suit, Crown’s indigo ensemble, and Serena’s somber “church lady” skirt and jacket made those characters stand out.

The concept effectively played down the darker themes of the opera to focus on Porgy’s strength and determination, and Lester Lynch sang the role with imposing force. Alyson Cambridge made a fragile Bess, easily seduced back into her bad old ways of dope and dangerous men; her slightly edgy soprano wasn’t flattered by the hall’s dry acoustics. Indra Thomas stood out as an honest, big-voiced Serena, and Victor Ryan Robertson made Sportin’ Life a community member, not just a weaselly villain. The splendid chorus, the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, sang with a rich, vibrant sound and fine ensemble; the orchestra, under Stefan Asbury, played with verve and authority.

Waleson, like the previous two writers, noted the opera’s most apparent stumble: the unintelligible vocals. However, she also took issue with the very visual presence of stage hands as being a distraction. While I understand where she is coming from, they were no more difficult to imagine away than it was to imagine that the palmetto trees that rose up from the stage were in fact pieces of painted plywood. She also made it a point to note that all the stagehands were white, but I attended Friday’s show and that is simply not my recollection. Still, she offers a pretty glowing review. 

Meanwhile, the British press also chimed in, with the Telegraph placing Porgy and Bess within the context of Charleston history:

Charleston, South Carolina, is a beautiful place fraught with history, long past and all too recent. Once one of the richest cities in the British empire, it is also where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.

Simmering tensions stretching right back to the slave trade have never quite evaporated, witness the mass shooting at the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church almost exactly a year ago. Feelings were thus running high in Charleston when Monday’s performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was simulcast from the Gaillard Center into a public park near the church and dedicated to the memory of one of victims of that shooting, Ethel Lance, who had worked for many years at the performance venue…

The Telegraph also praised Green, but also had kind words for the performers:

To hear “Summertime” here is undeniably moving, especially when sung with such languid beauty as by Courtney Johnson. But the cast is strong all round. Lester Lynch’s dark baritone affords him complete possession of the role of Porgy, and the troubled Bess is radiantly portrayed by Alyson Cambridge. Victor Ryan Robertson is brilliantly slinky as Sporting Life. Under Stefan Asbury’s baton, the young players (America’s finest) of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra find all the sophistication of Gershwin’s score. If the chorus-line blocking of the director David Herskovits is a little formulaic, this is still a momentous and triumphant homecoming for Porgy and Bess.

However, a review in the Financial Times of London left us scratching our heads.

First, it repeated a false claim made previously by Charleston’s Post and Courier — namely, that the Gershwin estate blocked a Holy City Porgy production in the 1950s because the production would be before a segregated audience. The truth is the 1952 Charleston production was shut down by Dock Street Theatre because the black community objected to segregated seats and theater leaders didn’t want to kowtow to what they saw as the African-American community’s uppity demands. It’s also worth noting that the cancelation of the show that was roundly supported by the News and Courier, the precursor to the P&C. An unidentified writer for the paper wrote, “In demanding that the audience be racially mingled, in disregard of South Carolina laws and customs, these Negroes in our opinion have not helped to promote good race relations. If upsetting these customs is the only terms on which they will participate, it is better that the project be abandoned.” (Psst, you can find more N&C racist BS in Ellen Noonan’s The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess.)

All of that aside, I was particularly surprised to find this befuddling passage in the Financial Times:

The production, driven by Jonathan Green’s designs, imagines a time when the opera’s close-knit but struggling black community has attained a measure of urban belonging, although Green avoids indices suggesting that time is today. A Georgian brick building and a wooden house with a second-storey porch show that Catfish Row has been gentrified, and later they take on designs of west African origin, a sure indication that the community has made the locale its own.

Gentrified? Huh? Perhaps the term means something different in the U.K. then it does here.

The writer also takes issue with Jonathan Green’s overall vision.

Neither the designs’ bright colours nor Lenore Doxsee’s lighting do the drama about the match between the disabled beggar Porgy and the glamorous Bess any favours, but they don’t do it serious harm either. David Herskovits’s direction of principals and chorus, however, could use a stronger profile.

Together, both statements are clear examples that the Financial Times reviewer knows little about Charleston and even less about Spoleto’s Porgy and Bess.

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