To consider George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess merely a strand of pearly jazz standards does not do justice to what is considered American grand opera. Concert versions, musical theater stagings, and abbreviated productions abound, and while a night where someone sings “Summertime” can always be considered time well spent, you need to see the three-hour opera to fully grasp the majesty and emotional breadth of Mr. Gershwin’s achievement.
The Washington National Opera is doing just that with a gorgeous production of Porgy and Bess directed by Francesca Zambello and featuring a score newly researched and restored by Maestro John Mauceri that reflects the original score produced by George and Ira Gershwin in 1935.
Dismissed by many classical music critics as “folk opera” and embroiled in controversy—what is an urbane Jewish New Yorker doing writing about poor African Americans in coastal South Carolina?—and charges of racism in its portrayal of the characters, Porgy and Bess was not thought of as legitimate opera until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera presented the complete score to great acclaim.
Mr. Gershwin, on the other hand, thought Porgy and Bess was his best work and the score is indeed a rich and sophisticated blend of jazz, southern black folk music, blues, spirituals, street cries, work songs and Jewish liturgical music, along with the traditional opera elements of arias and recitatives. Leitmotifs are skillfully interwoven throughout the work, as themes for certain characters—“Summertime” for the hopeful young mother Clara (the excellent Alyson Cambridge) and later for Bess and the insinuating strains of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” for the sleazy dope peddler Sportin’ Life (Jermaine Smith, possessing both a supple tenor voice and gymnastic abilities)—and also to evoke the close-knit and frequently combustive community of Catfish Row.
Porgy and Bess is now part of many companies’ standard repertory and the Washington National Opera produced the work in 2005. Their production has graced the stages at the Los Angeles Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera.
Miss Zambello moves the action from the 1920s to the 1950s, when racial tensions were beginning to simmer across the country. This change of setting gives the opera an immediacy and modern sensibility and also allows costume designer Paul Tazewell to drape the character of Bess (the highly charged soprano Morenike Fadayomi) in full-skirted, tight-bodiced, floaty confections that recall Liz Taylor or Dorothy Dandridge in their heyday.
Often romantically viewed as a tragic love story, Porgy and Bess is more complex than the relationship between Porgy (Eric Owens, tempering his powerful bass-baritone with moments of tender nuance), a disabled beggar, and Bess, a malleable beauty who has a way with men and also a drug habit and a violent attraction to the macho Crown (the menacing Terry Cook). It is about frustrated love, bad love—the kind you cannot crawl out from under. The opera also deals boldly with addiction and sexual abuse, and the cycle of ingrained poverty and prejudice that seems nearly impossible to break.
Of course, social issues are easier to take when delivered by a full orchestra and a cast of singer-actors with celestial voices who imbue the Gershwin score and the libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward with staggering emotional intensity. The downtrodden residents of Catfish Row rise above their circumstances through the majesty of the music they sing and the lofty feelings they arouse.
The choral and ensemble work is particularly strong, as seen in the thrilling call-and-response motif of the spiritual “Gone, Gone, Gone” at a humble funeral service—Lisa Daltirus is chills-inducing as the grieving and desperate widow singing “My Man Is Gone Now”—and in the high-spirited “I Can’t Sit Down.” A trio of vendors—Strawberry Woman (Samantha McElhaney,) Crab Man (Don Jones) and the Honey Man (Norwood Robinson) ply their wares with highly individual and vibrant come-on songs that bring back memories of the street peddlers that used to work the streets and alleys of Washington and Baltimore.
The individual performances gleam as well, starting with Miss Cambridge’s measured and languid lullabye “Summertime” and the infectious buoyancy of Mr. Owens’ “I Got Plenty of Nuthin’.” That uplift is also seen in the cynical swagger of Mr. Smith’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Judgment Day.”
Mr. Owens and Miss Fadayomi sing the soaring duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” with wonderful tenderness and hope, mingled with a sense of relief that they have found some measure of happiness and safety in each other’s arms.
This relief is only temporary, as realities bear down on the lovers and everyone else on Catfish Row. Bess loves the dope more than Porgy and deep-down feels undeserving of his devotion. The other women deal with death, natural disasters, and the casual racism that scars their everyday lives.
Yet, in the midst of all this despair, Porgy and Bess ends on a promising note, as seen in the unlikely guise of the character of Porgy. In the simple act of walking out of Catfish Row, he seems to suggest that you can break free of oppression and fear and enter a future both unknown and embracing.
PORGY AND BESS