Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Interview with Baritone Bernardo Bermudez

Bernardo Bermudez
Baritone Bernardo Bermudez makes his Union Avenue Opera debut in A Streetcar Named Desire singing the role of Stanley Kowalski. Born and raised in Venezuela, Bernardo currently lives in Los Angeles and has built an operatic career singing a variety of roles including Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Papageno in The Magic Flute, Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro and Scarpia in Tosca among several others. Phil Touchette of Operatic Saint Louis recently interviewed Mr. Bermudez on preparing the role of Stanley and his experience in this production.

What sort of artistic challenges do you encounter in preparing and performing works from the newer American opera repertoire, like Streetcar, compared with that of the Italian, French and German repertoire?
This wonderful piece is actually a lot different than the standard operatic rep, not only dramatically but also technically. Musically at the beginning it was a challenge, because there are sections of the music where the is not much connection to the orchestra, so it takes a little longer to learn the music and build it into my muscle memory. Moreover, Previn composed more rhythmically challenging music for Stanley since he is the antagonist character, in contrast to the protagonist roles which have not necessarily less challenging music but at least more lyrical.
In a production with limited rehearsal time, singers sometimes meet their scene partners for the first time and must develop a backstory and onstage chemistry--an element crucial to the passionate, volatile relationship between Stanley and Stella. How has this process worked between you and Katherine Giaquinto?
In this occasion, it has been very easy. I was lucky enough to have met Ms. Giaquito in Los Angeles prior to arriving in St. Louis, and we got an opportunity to work though some of our musical sections prior to rehearsal, and she is a delightful person to work with. In addition, our director Mr. Limber, our conductor Maestro Protopapas, and the rest of the cast have been very vocal about their relationships and backstories which makes the process so much easier in the long run. Also, all the cast members are such strong actors that is easy to feed off one another, making the piece come alive and stay energized.
Throughout the opera, Stanley and Blanche have an adversarial family dynamic. What is the source of their animosity towards one another? Why does their relationship escalate into such tragedy by the end of the opera?
I feel Stanley and Blanche come from very different places socially, but they both have very strong personalities and resort to their primal instincts. Ultimately it comes down to Blanche challenging to fracture Stanley's way of life and his relationship with Stella and his friend Mitch.
When working through the character's motivations, do you find that Stanley is deliberately cruel or merely straightforward with everyone he meets? Why does he treat Blanche especially brutally?
I feel Stanley is this way all the time. He has a strong personality and is a very likable character. In both the play and opera, he often describes himself as knowing a lot of people like lawyers, jewelers, the supply man at the plant, etc. But Blanche is here to challenge all this by disrupting his way of life and the control he has over the others--for example when Stella starts to challenge Stanley and order him around, and become more independent. This is something that Stanley does not tolerate and ultimately pushes him to his most primal physical and mental state of being.
Composer Andre Previn helps define certain characters with an aria, arioso and, most often, recitative. How does Previn define your character musically? How is Stanley differentiated from the other characters?
As I mentioned before Previn does a wonderful job at describing the different between the two types of characters. Protagonists like Blanche, Stella and Mitch have lyrical music and arias. In contrast, the antagonist character Stanley has no arias and more rhythmic, faster music, except for a small lyrical section he sings during a duet with Stella. It is evident that the music is emotionally motivated. The internal feelings of the characters define the music and tempos of the piece.
This production marks your debut with Union Avenue Opera. Have you been able to explore St. Louis in your time away from rehearsal?
Though the rehearsal process has been intense for this production, I have been fortunate enough to have been able to experience a bit of what St. Louis has to offer. I have gone on several runs through Forest Park and also a driving architectural tour of the different areas of the city. It is remarkable to see all the beautiful brick work that is present here.

You can learn more about Bernardo by visiting his website BernardoBermudez.com.

A Streetcar Named Desire opens Friday, August 1st and continues its run Aug 2, 8 & 9 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in English with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.

Interview with Soprano Katherine Giaquinto

Katherine Giaquinto
Soprano Katherine Giaquinto makes her Union Avenue Opera debut in the St. Louis Premiere of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire singing the role of Stella Kowalski. Originally from Canada and now residing in Los Angeles, Katherine's background was in television and film acting before discovering and pursuing opera, in which she has sung the roles of Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte and Musetta in La Bohème, among many others. Phil Touchette of Operatic Saint Louis recently interviewed Ms. Giaquinto on preparing the role of Stella and her experience in this production.

In a production with limited rehearsal time, singers meet their scene partners often for the first time and must develop a backstory and onstage chemistry--an element crucial to the passionate, volatile relationship between Stanley and Stella. How has this process worked between you and Bernardo Bermudez?
This was something I was very aware of coming into the production, knowing that the relationship between Stanley and Stella is so central to the story. I knew that Bernardo and I were going to be "getting up in each other's business," so to speak. Usually what happens in a production is that on Day One of staging you have a little conversation with each other and just check in, asking permission to get close, to touch, hug or kiss as the scene requires. I also like to express that I'm okay going with whatever instinct my scene partner would want to follow. I'd much rather discover something amazing in these characters' relationship than play it safe during staging because it might feel a little awkward at first. For Bernardo and I, we had a publicity photo shoot right before we began staging in which we recreated the embrace right after the infamous "STELLLLLAAA!!!" scene, and that helped to break the ice a little. Then we continued to get more comfortable with each other as staging went on. Bernardo is such a kind person that it's very easy to trust him in any scene that's either romantic or even violent between these two characters. 
The sisters Blanche and Stella grew up in southern aristocratic society in which chivalry and manners are paramount. Why, then, do you think Stella married a man given to less than gentlemanly behavior which repulses her sister Blanche?
Though Stella comes from a genteel background, I think she is really quite a bit more grounded and earthy than Blanche. When we meet her in the time frame of the story her behavior shows her to be a lusty woman who is quite happy in this rough and tumble world of New Orleans. I think in Stanley she found the first man who made it okay for her to embrace her sensuality, rather than be ashamed of it as Blanche is. I think she's thrilled by Stanley's strength and exaggerated maleness. She also brings out a tenderness in Stanley that no one else does - something probably only she gets to witness behind the closed curtains of their bedroom - and this gives her a certain feeling of power. We actually see very little of their love story as it was, before everything is soured by Blanche's arrival. But I think Stella and Stanley are really madly in love with each other.
Stella has been portrayed in a variety of ways. Kim Hunter in the Elia Kazan film seems feisty while Elizabeth Futral in the opera's premiere tends towards the submissive--though both were warm towards their respective Blanches. How has it been to balance the devoted wife and protective sister in Stella?
Stella's main struggle is having to choose between the man she loves beyond reason, and her sister. In the end she chooses Stanley, and it's part of Blanche's downfall. I think that's Stella's tragedy. Often I hear people describe Stella as passive, and I recognize it's hard to compare her to the towering literary figures of Stanley and Blanche. But I don't see her as passive at all. I think she's massively conflicted and presented with an impossible task - she can't keep both of these people happy. Also, one way to view the story is that Blanche and Stanley are basically fighting for Stella's soul - her love and loyalty. In that case, she's the pivotal point of this relationship triangle.
As you sing through the score, what musical passages fascinate or intrigue you about your character?
Stella actually has the first aria of the show. It's short and sweet, and the text is taken from the passage in which she describes how hard it is for her when Stanley travels away for business. She says, "I can hardly stand it when he's away for a night. And when he's away for a week I nearly go wild." The music is lyrical and sensuous, and for me it was a big clue into her character. I think we often have a hard time imagining a woman from the 40s as a sexual being, but it's right there in the Williams' text, and Previn has brought it to life in Stella's music. After all, the title is A Streetcar Named Desire, and I think that applies very much to Stella as well.
How does Stella compare musically or dramatically to the roles you have previously sung, if at all?
Stella is new territory for me in some ways because I often play strong, smart, self-possessed women like Fiordiligi, Musetta, or Susanna in Figaro. Stella is much more feminine, in the deepest sense of the word. She is often more receptive than active, and I've had to work to find out how this character would express things like anger or upset in less overt ways than are my natural instincts. Musically, we've all had to work to find the natural inflections of speech within the prescribed rhythms of Previn's music. The opera is basically sung conversation, with a few lyrical moments inserted here and there. The maestro has been so generous with us musically, always encouraging us to find a natural way of expressing the text, rather than be worried about being robotically accurate.
Katherine & Lacy Sauter in the
Central West End
'Streetcar' marks your debut with Union Avenue Opera. How has the UAO experience been so far? Have you been able to explore St. Louis in your time away from rehearsal?
Honestly, I've been having such a fabulous time here. Everyone at UAO has been welcoming, generous, and totally on top of their game. My host family is wonderful and has made me feel right at home. I've been so impressed with the abundance of history, art and culture in St. Louis. I'm staying right by Forest Park and I can't wait for our week off so I can go explore the art museum, the zoo and the science center. It's also a fabulous coincidence to be performing Streetcar in St. Louis, which is so rich with Tennessee Williams history. On our first day here Lacy (Blanche) and I stumbled across a bronze bust of Williams just a few blocks from where we're staying. We took pictures with it!

You can learn more about Katherine by visiting her website KatherineGiaquinto.com, following her on Twitter @OperaKat and checking out her Facebook page.

A Streetcar Named Desire opens Friday, August 1st and continues its run Aug 2, 8 & 9 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in English with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Interview with "A Streetcar Named Desire" Director Christopher Limber

Christopher Limber
Stage Director Christopher Limber makes his Union Avenue Opera debut with the St. Louis Premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. In addition to directing, Christopher is an accomplished professional actor, musician, theatre teacher and award-winning playwright. Phil Touchette of Operatic Saint Louis recently interviewed him on the task of staging André Previn and Philip Littell's adaptation of a Tennessee Williams classic.

Though you have many directorial credits in St. Louis, this production will be your first with Union Avenue Opera. What was there about the operatic adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire that intrigued you to take on this project?
This is a musically large operatic telling of a small American story. This is what opera and what Tennessee do best – add the heightened and recognizable truth of our inner emotional lives to the stage, with the music of poetry. In opera we have as well the dazzling power of great voices and a full orchestra. Poets and composers feed our need to understand and articulate our deepest longings and surprises. Inside my body, heart and mind, I experience life as emotionally powerful and extraordinary as an opera. I think that is why we love it. Opera gives full voice to own inner experience of life. Think of it – it takes a full stage full of singers and an orchestra to embody what we often feel inside our skin almost on a daily basis.
Does your process of preparing an opera differ at all from that of a straight theater piece?
The basics are the same – exploration of character and story and how those are told visually through staging; working with designers to create a world of the piece that embraces and articulates every human component of the piece. But then, there is the glorious addition and complexity of music. Though the cast is small, they demand a powerful musical palate individually and must work extremely well as an ensemble. Union Avenue Opera has cast wonderful singers who also are excellent actors.  I adore working with these remarkable folks. They are all inspired and disciplined – and they do their homework. The conductor, Kostis Protopapas is not only a superior musician, he is also a perceptive and highly creative theatre professional. He know how to tell a story onstage. Our collaboration has been rich and effective.
André Previn's score seems to consist heavily of recitative. Do you think Previn used this musical device in order to give Philip Littell's libretto the same kind of textual rhythm as a spoken play?
I think this opera stretches the traditional operatic form in good ways. The libretto is a distillation of the play and beautifully made. The rendering of Streetcar’s dialogue is not expositional; it is relational and interactive. It is not just necessary for imparting information to set up scenes duets, arias and quartets – it is all about expressing the relationship and events, that is, the wants, desires and emotional responses of the characters, in relationship to each other and in the moment. These characters don’t simply talk about how they feel and what they want. They feel a need and pursue what they want and hope to receive in the moment. It is emotionally active and full. These characters affect and change each other throughout and it must be immediate and compelling. In rehearsal we have wrestled and delighted in the exploration of how music articulates poetic dialogue and what I call “rebounding”: the back and forth of dialogue and the dynamics of heightened emotional response. There are many two-, three-, and four-measure instrumental expressions and transitions between lines of dialogues. Like a Pinter Pause these musical Previn moments articulate the inner life and experience of the characters. These are all thoughtfully designed and placed to drive the piece emotionally forward, but always in relationship to each of the characters, one to the other in within moments of each scene.
Did you find moments in Previn's score that shed new light on any previous conceptions or ideas you had about the story?
The journey of Blanche is experienced by the audience in–I believe–a full and immediate emotional splendor: her initial psychological fragility, her need and determination to win her sister’s love by “saving” her from an animalistic immigrant “Polack” husband who she looks down upon. Then Stanley, feeling his home kingdom challenged, assaults her, first psychologically and then physically, and destroys her sanity. All of this is beautifully articulated in the text – in dramatic action and embellished and portrayed musically. Previn states that the play has the story and emotional expanse of an opera. It is ready to be one. Then, there are Williams’ theatrical images: the Flower Woman, a premonition of death, the wrenching telling of Blanche’s husband’s suicide, the final haunting moments of the opera which offer the beginning of Blanche’s final journey in a wonderfully simple but extended way. These experiences within the opera offer the audience moments of emotional experiences which, I feel, are often in the play’s after-show residual intellectual discoveries by the audience about Blanche. This is what Opera does best: cut straight in performance to the emotional core of character and events. We feel the discovery rather than simply understand it intellectually.
Are there any scenes or moments in the opera that have been especially inspiring or rewarding to work through in the staging process?
There are too many to mention. It has been a constant process of revelation and discovery. This company is highly creative, disciplined and generous — with each other, the conductor and me. The collaborative dynamic of this process has been most rewarding. There are also many rehearsal moments, when I feel Williams, Previn and Littell are sitting right there and joining the conversation. 
Conversely, have there been any scenes that pose difficulties or challenges?
It is a quick process but as Leonard Bernstein notably observed: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” In the arts you quickly learn to use every element of process to your advantage. This is the difference a professional ensemble knows how to make.
The theatrical space of Union Avenue Opera can pose a challenge to directors and set designers. In working with set designer Kyra Bishop, how did you arrive at a design that offers an authentic feel for New Orleans on the UAO stage?
Kyra is visually imaginative. She has brought the outside world of New Orleans which surrounds the Kowalski Apartment all around and then inside – into the layered effects of the design. The backdrop is an abstract expression of New Orleans – inside on the walls you see years of lives past in the layers of paint and wall-paper brick which are disintegrating together. We see through the curtain that divides the two shabby rooms as we see inside ourselves and others. We have used the small stage to our advantage – to heighten the heat in the air, the body’s passions and the heartfelt battles – between the characters in close proximity to each other.
Besides the well known aria "I Want Magic" sung by Blanche, what other musical moments should audiences listen for?
There are so many, and they flow in and out of Previn’s beautifully orchestrated dialogue recitative seamlessly throughout all three acts. For example: Stella’s recollection “like a Child” in Act One, of Stanley’s homecomings, Mitch’s description of love, “You know it’s the right thing” in Act Two; and Blanche’s tale of her husband’s tragic end. Equally affecting and dramatically potent is Blanche’s imminent fall into lunacy placed in undeniable motion with the Flower Seller, as she succumbs to her fantasy world and then, resigns herself to in her final aria about spending the rest of her days “on the sea.” These are some of many transcendent musical moments which offer new understandings into characters, which for all of us who know and love this play, have considered for years. 
What would you say to the "man on the street" to encourage them to attend this opera?
Streetcar is, above all, emotionally eloquent and supports the large romantic expressionism of Previn’s musical imaginings. The librettist, Philip Littell has crystalized a faithful and emotionally complex operatic telling. Previn has then added a lush and dynamic musical exploration using the power of music to express our deepest feelings of passion, regret, joy and sadness.  
As Shakespeare is to England, Chekhov is to Russia, Tennessee Williams is – to me – the greatest American dramatic storyteller. In 1947, “Streetcar” raised the bar on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize. His language brings to American drama a heightened and poetic expression and power to the lives of small recognizable Americans. The story and relationships in Streetcar contain an emotional grandeur and the dynamic of a real tragedy. 
This is a tale of two privileged sisters from a small Southern town, one clinging to past traditions and one exploring a new passionate life with a tough, Polish, working-class vet set in an earthy, shabby New Orleans apartment – these are all iconic American characters. They have become part of our theatrical vocabulary and they express our deepest emotional everyday existence. We are all extraordinary in our small normal lives. Williams knew this and that is why his characters and stories move us so profoundly.

A Streetcar Named Desire opens this weekend on Friday, August 1st and continues its run Aug 2, 8 and 9 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in English with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Music of "A Streetcar Named Desire"

In anticipation of the St. Louis Premiere of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire at Union Avenue Opera, here are two excerpts from the opera's premiere at San Francisco Opera featuring Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois. Take a moment to watch and listen, then get your tickets at unionavenueopera.org if you haven't already. Don't miss this Streetcar!

"I Want Magic" from Act Three, Scene Two

"I Can Smell the Sea Air" from Act Three, Scene Four

The St. Louis Premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire opens Friday, August 1st and continues its run Aug 2, 8 & 9 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in English with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

STL Public Radio's "Cityscape" to Feature "A Streetcar Named Desire" Artists This Friday

Lacy Sauter & Katherine Giaquinto
Friday at Noon, Union Avenue Opera will be featured on St. Louis Public Radio's Cityscape. Host Steve Potter welcomes Sopranos Lacy Sauter and Katherine Giaquinto (singing Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski, respectively) and Stage Director Christopher Limber to discuss UAO's upcoming production of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, which will be seen in its St. Louis Premiere.

Cityscape airs on KWMU 90.7 at Noon-1pm on Friday, July 25th and will be repeated at 10pm that night. You may also listen to archived audio of the program on http://www.stlpublicradio.org/

Tickets for upcoming UAO productions start at $32 and are available online at http://www.unionavenueopera.org/ or by calling the box office (open M-F, 10am-3pm) at 314-361-2881.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Critics on UAO's "La Traviata"

Union Avenue Opera's production of La Traviata concludes its run this weekend. Here's a sample of what KDHX's Chuck Lavazzi, Malcolm Gay of Riverfront Times, Mark Bretz of Ladue News, Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld, Gerry Kowarsky of Two on the Aisle and John Huxhold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have to say about the production:

Chuck Lavazzi:
"Zulimar López-Hernández has a spectacular voice...[B]etter yet she acts the role with total conviction...The standing ovation for her during the curtain call was both enthusiastic and well deserved... [Riccardo Iannello's] Act II aria drew shouts of 'bravo' on opening night... Robert Garner is compelling and sings a beautiful 'Di Provenza il mar' in Act II... [The chorus's] performance of the Act I drinking song 'Libiamo ne' lieti calici' illustrates why this is a popular operatic excerpt, and they make that big Act II finale wonderfully powerful... Tim Ocel directs with a light hand, mostly content to let the opera tell its story without a lot of gimmicks... 
Put it all together and you have a very strong start to Union Avenue's season. Opera lovers should put this on their 'don't miss' list, but opera newbies should give it serious thought as well." 
Malcolm Gay:
"[A]rtistic director Scott Schoonover is an operatic alchemist, transforming the restraints of a limited budget into theatrical gold... Particularly outstanding was the contrast between Iannello's intense ardor and López-Hernández's brash coquettishness in 'Un di felice, eterea,' which was soon matched by her defiant vocal agility that played so beautifully against his grounded tenacity in 'Sempre libera'... Garner has a deep, rich voice that wraps around you like a lambskin glove in duets like 'Un di, quando le veneri'... Directed by Tim Ocel, the production makes effective use of the set, opening each act with a portentous image of Alfredo at Violetta's grave... Mark Freiman and Robert Reed sing well in the supporting roles of Baron Douphol and Doctor Grenvile. Similarly, the chorus is populated with strong voices, and its members excel in the matador and gypsy dances of Act Two...
Joined by Iannello and Garner, they deliver the opera's potent final songs with an overwhelming emotional force...It's that sort of grand operatic moment — often felt at UAO — that's usually reserved for the big stage, and with a Violetta like this, there's little doubt López-Hernández will be there soon enough. "
Mark Bretz:
"[López-Hernández and Iannello] display beautiful, rich, resonant voices that amply convey the beauty and majesty of Verdi’s music... They are ably supported by Robert Garner...[whose] deep, powerful baritone delivers some of La Traviata’s most compelling arias in singular fashion... Scott Schoonover’s conducting of the melodious score is robust and exhilarating throughout, receiving expert response from the UAO orchestra. Tim Ocel’s stage direction shrewdly utilizes side entrances to the compact stage as well as eliciting direct, focused performances by his cast...
Schoonover and Union Avenue Opera have contributed substantially to the area’s cultural landscape in the past two decades. This sumptuous interpretation of La Traviata indicates that UAO is as polished and accomplished as ever."
Chris Gibson:
"Zulimar López-Hernández does outstanding work as Violetta, and her soprano voice is more than up to the demands of the score... [T]he blending of her voice with [Riccardo Iannello's] tenor is simply marvelous. Both are able to convey their emotions and desires vocally as well as through their acting performances... Robert Garner makes an impression as well as Giorgio...he doesn't come across as a villain, but more as a concerned father who may be more misguided in his actions than anything else... 
Union Avenue Opera has put together a memorable and moving production of this timeless work that demands your time and attention."
Gerry Kowarsky:
"López-Hernández portrayed Violetta's inner struggles with remarkable power and clarity... Riccardo Iannello was a sweet young man as Alfredo and he had a sweet voice to match... Robert Garner convincingly evinced Giorgio Germont's concern for both his children and eventually for Violetta, too... The ensemble had striking presence... Teresa Doggett's costumes and Maureen Berry's lighting were solid contributions to one of Union Avenue's strongest productions ever."
John Huxhold:
"Friday night’s opener of Verdi’s 'La Traviata,' demonstrates again that this company is something to celebrate... [Zulimar López-Hernández] looked spectacular in sparkling white and lurid red gowns, and she has a voice to match...her acting was completely convincing... [Riccardo Iannello] has a glorious voice with a clarity and technique that make even the difficult parts sound easy... Robert Garner as Alfredo’s father Giorgio was a strong dramatic presence...his diction was precise and intelligible as it emerged from a resonant and commanding vocal quality... All of the minor roles were excellent — not a weak voice in the bunch — and the chorus of about 25 sounded much larger than its numbers would suggest... Tim Ocel’s stage direction was fluid without any awkward moments, even in long orchestra interludes or when positioning the principals in the final death scene... Conductor Scott Schoonover led the orchestra with precision and with careful attention to all the emotional contours in the score... 
If you can’t make it to New York’s Met or Chicago’s Lyric, check out Union Avenue Opera. You will discover that there are significant operatic pleasures to be had right here at home."
La Traviata concludes its run this weekend: July 18 & 19 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review of "Porgy and Bess" at the Muny

The cast of "Porgy and Bess"
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
The main thing you need to know about “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is that it's not really the Gershwins' “Porgy and Bess.” Permit me to explain.

“Porgy and Bess” is a 1935 opera with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, and libretto by Heyward, based on an earlier stage adaptation of his 1925 novel “Porgy” about the tragic love triangle linking the crippled beggar Porgy, the brutish stevedore Crown, and the worldly but not very wise Bess. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a 2011 musical theatre adaptation of the opera conceived and directed by Diane Paulus with a radically simplified version of Gershwin's score by Diedre Murray and a rewritten book by Susan-Lori Parks that deletes some characters and subplots but leaves the core story intact.

Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
“Porgy and Bess” is a full-scale opera, sung through with a minimum of spoken dialog. Cast in three acts but usually performed in two, it runs over three and one-half hours with intermission. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a standard musical, with most of the original narrative music replaced with speech. It runs just over two and one-half hours. “Porgy and Bess” has (depending on how its staged) only one or two real dance production numbers and not many built-in applause breaks. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” has plenty of both, repeatedly bringing the drama to a halt while the cast poses and the audience claps on cue.

The result is a work that, compared to the original, feels somewhat downsized and diminished. Ms. Murray's musical edits are at best pointless and at worst pernicious, altering Gershwin's original melodies and rhythms in what seem to me to be arbitrary and unnecessary ways.   All of the best-known songs are still there—"Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," "I Got Plenty of Nothing," and "It Ain't Necessarily So," among others—but none of them has escaped some tinkering.  Some of the composer's most innovative ideas, like the orchestral fugue that accompanies the fight in which Crown murders Robbins, have been edited out of existence or, like the vivid musical depiction of the gathering storm in the second act, drowned out by stage business and sound effects.

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess,
Kingsley Leggs as Sportin' Life
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke's arrangements don't help, replacing Gershwin's inventive orchestration with a generic contemporary keyboard-heavy sound. In addition, the brevity of the individual songs and frequent applause cues kills some of the dramatic momentum that the original creates with its continuous flow of melody.

That's not to say that all of the changes are negative. In Heyward's libretto the residents of Catfish Row often come across as naïve and even simple minded. Ms. Parks has given them a wisdom and dignity that makes them more three-dimensional without substantially changing the story. Some revisions—such as making Bess more actively involved in her own downfall, making Porgy less crippled, or turning Porgy's killing of Crown into an elaborate piece of stage combat involving the entire community—strike me as more questionable, but in general Ms. Parks's contributions add far more than they subtract.

The result is a work that, while dramatically as good as (and sometimes better than) the original, is far less musically interesting. I don't think it serves George Gershwin very well.

That's the bad news. The good news is that this touring company is a strong one, with terrific voices and a fine ensemble of actors—something that, to be fair, you don't always get in the opera world. Better yet, most of the principals have some operatic background, so in some ways this cast combines the best of both worlds. It's a large company—26 members—so I'll confine myself to the leads and supporting performers.

Alvin Crawford as Crown
Photo: Michale J. Lutch
Nathaniel Stampley anchors the ensemble as a dynamic and strong-willed Porgy. Alicia Hall Moran's Bess has all the self-possessed sexuality the role needs, coupled with a strong undercurrent of sadness that makes her tragic downfall credible. Alvin Crawford is a swaggering and arrogant Crown and David Hughey is a warm and loving presence as the doomed Jake, whose desire to create a better life for his child leads to his death in that second act hurricane.

As Serena, Denisha Ballew sings a hair-raising “My Man's Gone Now” while Sumayya Ali's Clara makes a strong first impression in “Summertime.” I don't think it makes sense to turn it into a duet with Jake, but that's a separate issue. Danielle Lee Graves completes the trio of strong supporting women as Mariah, Catfish Row's unofficial spokeswoman and wise elder.

Kingsley Leggs's Sportin' Life is less flamboyant and more physically restrained than is usually the case with this role, which was originally conceived with Cab Calloway in mind and first performed by vaudeville veteran John Bubbles. It's obviously a directorial rather than an acting decision and does result in making the character less comical and more credibly seductive.

Speaking of direction, Ms. Paulus's downsizing might not be to my taste, but her blocking and pacing are first rate. The sets by Riccardo Hernandez replace the original realistic and oppressive tenement block with simple flats painted to suggest doors and windows. That has the advantage of allowing fast scene changes, although it's not always entirely clear where some scenes are taking place unless you already know the story well.

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
The bottom line is that “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a leaner, more streamlined, and unquestionably non-operatic treatment of a work that's generally regarded as Gershwin's magnum opus. If you've never seen the original or you have and can essentially treat this as an entirely different work, I'd say it's worth seeing. Calling it “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,” though, strikes me as dishonest, as though the creators wanted the cachet of the Gershwin name without the musical substance that goes along with it. Maybe they should just call it “Porgy and Bess: the Musical.”

“The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” runs through Sunday, July 13, on the Muny's outdoor Stage in Forest Park. The show begins at 8:15 nightly. For more information: muny.com.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.