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Aug 9, 2016 |
opera_reviews  |

Review: Porgy and Bess and The Little Match Girl on stage at the Spoleto Festival USA

 Enthusiasm for Spoleto 2016 was perhaps best characterized by the reopening of Gaillard Auditorium, the largest of downtown Charleston, South Carolina’s theatre spaces.  After a three-year, two-hundred million dollar renovation, the theatre was one of the festival’s feature attractions. PORGY AND BESS,  the undoubtedly now classic opera set in Charleston was one of four operas presented at the festival, which played from May 28 – June 12.  This review will concentrate on two productions offered at this year’s festival: PORGY AND BESS and  THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL. These two works provided a stark contrast, though both defined the incredible diversity championed by Spoleto through its incredible forty seasons. 


            PORGY AND BESS was presented in Gaillard Auditorium, which, as of June 2016, was still in strong need of acoustical treatment to rectify the poor sound quality of the newly renovated space.  The production was directed by David Herskovits and visual design was by noted Gullah artist Jonathan Green. Because Spoleto attempts to involve the local community as well as major national and international artists under very short- term artist contacts, it has been typically difficult to engage significant artists to realize the scale of performance required for the works presented.  This was the case with PORGY AND BESS.  Very few of the performers measured up to the difficulties required of the difficult work – not necessarily from the standpoint of singing but from the overall realization of the work.  As Porgy, Lester Lynch was serviceable.  His strong voice was undermined by the Gaillard acoustics and while some of his dialogue was discernable eventually, much was lost due to the Gullah dialect as well as the acoustically bereft nature of the hall.  However he survived some poor directorial choices and emerged as a strong figure in the performance. Alyson Cambridge, as Bess, was less successful.  It appeared that she may have been experiencing vocal problems as her work was not sufficient in this critical role.  Acting was generally a problem in this production with many performances barely rising above the level of amateur “indicating.” This was true of many of the comprimario roles, especially Lisa Daltirus as Maria, whose vocal skills were strong but acting abilities, less so.


"Robinson’s extraordinary diction and clarity, dancing expertise and strong acting ability clearly established the character as one with flair and evil style."


            Two characters emerged as the most successful. Victor Ryan Robinson as Sportin’ Life, emerged as the performance’s most memorable character.  Having reviewed the opera on two previous occasions this is not unusual to many productions.  Robinson’s extraordinary diction and clarity, dancing expertise and strong acting ability clearly established the character as one with flair and evil style.  As Crown, Eric Greene was nearly as successful.  His strong physical and vocal presence helped tell the story of Bess’ physical attraction, however his weaknesses as an actor were exposed in many scenes, particularly in the critical fight scenes that were incredibly under-realized. 

            Other aspects on the production were uneven at best, as the staging was unclear, set changes were clumsy (technicians in green shirts mixed with the action and even remained on the stage for the final tableau), the fight direction was amateurish  and many of the design elements did not form a coherent whole. Overall PORGY AND BESS represented some of the best aspects of the festival – the inclusion of classical operatic works mounted on a grand scale that are mounted with strong technical and artistic proficiency.  The achievement was good, but the artistic quality fell short of truly wonderful opera.  PORGY AND BESS is a difficult work and the casting pool is noticeably smaller for this challenging opera, so the Spoleto 2016 production was clearly the best that could have been, given the resources available.

"Featuring the entire Spoleto USA Orchestra (90 persons strong) along with the Westminster Choir Chorus from Rider University (50 total), MATCH GIRL was an incredibly well realized performance."

            THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL was one of the boldest productions seen at Spoleto over the past ten years.  This was the world premiere of  this operatic work. It was developed in Germany and is based on the 1845 story by Hans Christian Anderson that had been previously realized in the format of film and then as a ballet.  Featuring the entire Spoleto USA Orchestra (90 persons strong) along with the Westminster Choir Chorus from Rider University (50 total), MATCH GIRL was an incredibly well realized performance.  It featured the orchestra and chorus encircling the recently renovated Memminger Auditorium from above the stage and audience while the video and audio action took place from the standard proscenium format.  The action of the story was told via the brilliant puppetry work of Mark Down, Ruth Paton and Fiona Clift, who utilized something of a Balinese shadow puppet approach with a few twists.  Behind the centrally located projection screen projections included, characters, words from the text and images that displayed the difficult, precarious life of the little match girl, a young girl forced onto the streets to sell matches for a small penance in order to help her poor family survive.  As she drifts into delirium due to starvation and hypothermia, the little match girl relives moments of her life that include scenes from her past, including a young man who was identified as a “terrorist” and his manipulation of the young girl.  Unlike the ballet, that includes scenes from The Nutcracker and other works the girl had seen, this opera dealt more with scenes from her life on the street, the individuals she encountered and the difficulties of the cold, snowy conditions.  Her encounters with a character known as “the terrorist,” a London street killer who showed sentiment for the poor little match girl, were more of a central part of this program.  The visual design painted a dark, horrific world that was the misé en scene of the little match girl who lived in a world where she was shunned and disregarded by the higher levels of society that existed during the Victorian Period. 

            Featuring six soloists – three singers as well as three instrumentalists, - two major figures sang the majority of the solo roles in the show.  Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta performed the majority of the “solo” roles in the performance though much of this consisted of the making of sounds of snow, wind, rain and other sounds that supported the background atmosphere of the production.  Chen Bo was featured on an Eastern instrument known as the Shô that produced sounds from multiple octaves simultaneously. 

            THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL was an incredible work of dramatic/musical art that defied the typical standards of work that is presented in the USA.  It is hard to imagine that the finances for most organizations in the United States, most of which lack any source of  significant external funding, could consider mounting a work of THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL’S magnitude.  This work, combined with PORGY AND BESS addressed the limits of classical and contemporary operatic production.  The two works clearly revealed the festival’s goal of variety both in terms of historical genre as well as contemporary style.

Steve Earnest

Professor of Theatre

Coastal Carolina University                                                                                                

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Opera Association, its Board, Officers or Membership.

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