Review: Seattle Opera’s Worthy “Porgy and Bess”, July 30, 2011

Sufficient time has elapsed to permit a longer view of the operatic creations of the first half of the 20th century. George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” is one such work – one that at its premiere seemed to be among the most problematical and, perhaps, least operatic of the operatic fare of the 1930s.

Much of the operatic community did not take Gershwin’s work seriously as opera – as opposed to some hybridized form of musical theater – until Houston Grand Opera’s highly praised production of the mid-1970s. But in every decade since then, interest and appreciation of the work has increased.

The reevaluation of “Porgy’s” musical included its championship by Conductor John DeMain, who has been associated with many of the major performance runs, either conducting directly or coordinating the musical preparation for major productions. His musical leadership as conductor for this year’s Seattle Opera mounting assures the highest level of scholarship and musical authority for the Seattle effort.

[Conductor John DeMain; edited image, based on a Jim Gill photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

DeMain has been tireless in promoting this work, and has the distinction of being the conductor most associated with the two most performed American operas – “Porgy”, the all-time leader in number of performances, and Carlisle Floyd’s still immensely underrated “Susannah” (See my review of the other DeMain project at  Opera Pacific’s Brilliant “Susannah” – May 14, 2008.)

Seattle Opera, whose General Director Speight Jenkins is another impresario in Porgy’s corner, over the past three decades has presented George Gershwin’s operatic masterpiece in three separate seasons. It opened its 2011-2012 season with a new staging of “Porgy” by Chris Alexander, using the immensely satisfying sets of the New York Harlem Theater.

[Below: Porgy (Gordon Hawkins, above) vows to be the protector of Bess (Lisa Daltirus); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

In my experience, the more times I see “Porgy” performed, the more convinced I am that it belongs appropriately in the core operatic repertory. The composer Gershwin created a “sound” that evoked the folksongs of African-American communities of Charleston and South Carolina’s barrier islands, just as, say, Mussorgsky created local color sound, from Slavic folksongs to Russian Orthodox choral singing for “Boris Godunov” or Ponchielli or Mascagni created veristic sonic images of Venice and Sicily in their respective works “La Gioconda” and “Cavalleria Rusticana”.

Gershwin, and his principal librettist, Dubose Heyward, conceived a brilliant portrayal of an economically poor but socially cohesive  community, where the forces of good and evil are readily identifiable.

[Below: the community’s forces of good are represented by the evangelicals; edited image, based on a Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

“Porgy”, which is still under a tightly-enforced copyright that governs its American performances, differs from other operas in how it is cast. No one would raise alarms at, say, Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky being cast as the black African characters Aida and Amonasro, but it seems impossible to conceive of these artists performing the roles of Bess and Porgy in an American house.

Although a George Gershwin biographer disputes that the composer ever intended that casting be restricted to artists of African descent (see: “Porgy and Bess” at 75 Years: An Interview with Gershwin Biographer Walter Rimler, Part I and “Porgy and Bess” at 75 Years: An Interview with Gershwin Biographer Walter Rimler, Part II) it is more than implicit that the major roles be exclusively performed by black artists. (A website called “Boomtown Media” calls “Porgy” as “the world’s first black opera”.)

If one travels to the major American companies producing the opera, one often encounters the same pool of artists, several of whom perform two of the major roles (Porgy and Crown or Bess and Clara).

Thus, my review of the Chicago performance refers to the Porgy of Gordon Hawkins and the Sporting Life of Jermaine Greer, as does my San Francisco review of Angel Blue’s Clara or Michael Austin’s Robbins. All four of these artists reprise their roles in Seattle.

Among the “Porgy” performers, Jermaine Smith is a specialist – one of the handful of performers that has mastered the dancing and acrobatics that accompany the rich vocal content of Sporting Life’s role. He is a mesmerizing presence, with such abundant charm, that an audience has to resist coming under the spell of this most engaging of operatic villains.

[Below: Jermaine Greer as Sporting Life; edited image, based on a Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

But the majority of these artists have an extensive operatic repertory. This website abounds in reviews of Hawkins’ performances of Verdi and Wagner roles. In fact, both Hawkins and his Bess, Lisa Daltirus, were leads in the Seattle Opera performance of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (See my review at  see: Seattle’s “Trovatore”: Standing Ovations for Antonello Palombi, Lisa Daltirus – January 16, 2010.).  Michael Redding (who also sings Porgy) is cast in lead roles in Mozart, Donizetti and Puccini operas.

[Below: Michael Redding is Crown; edited image, based on a Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Even though several opera companies worldwide might be performing Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” or Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, there is limited opportunity, with the need for covers for the major roles, for multiple simultaneous mountings of “Porgy” in different cities.

Thus “Porgy”, with its large cast, can be as complex an undertaking for an opera company as an opera with several roles requiring operatic virtuosi. An opera goer should take the opportunity to see it whenever it is offered.

“Porgy” abounds in interesting, often attractive characters. The opera’s most famous number, “Summertime”, is the lullaby sung by Clara (Angel Blue), to her baby by the ocean fisherman, Jake (Donovan Singletary), who constitute Catfish Row’s most upwardly mobile couple (and who both perish through defying nature’s force).

[Below: Jake (Donovan Singletary) holds his baby by Clara (Angel Blue); edited image, based on a Elise Bakkentun photograph, courtesy of Seattle Opera.]

One of the standouts among the second tier of characters (those beyond the two principals of the opera’s title) was the impressively sung Serena of Mary Elizabeth Williams, an artist who is an alumna of Seattle’s Young Artist’s program, who has taken on the major Verdi dramatic soprano roles.

[Below: the murdered Robbins’ grieving widow Serena (Mary Elizabeth Williams) is comforted by Porgy (Gordon Hawkins); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

In an opera that abounds in heartfelt arias and musical interludes, none surpasses the beauty of the final trio, Where’s Bess,  between Porgy, Serena and Catfish Row’s most prominent businesswoman, the tavern keeper Maria (Gwendolyn Brown), who commiserate with Porgy, after Sporting Life has exploited Bess’ drug addiction so that she leaves with him for New York.

Brown’s Maria and Williams’ Serena both were warmly applauded during the performance and received great ovations at opera’s end. The brief performances of Ibidunni Ojikutu as the Strawberry Woman and Ashley Faatoalia as the Crab Man were also enthusiastically received by the Seattle audience

[Below: Gwendolyn Brown is Maria; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Perhaps the production most familiar to audiences of the major American opera houses is the Francesca Zambello production with Peter J. Davison’s sets, which maximize the potential for uninterrupted flow from one scene to another. But Seattle’s new staging by Chris Alexander always illuminated the storyline, and often provided affecting images, such as when Bess begins a ceremony where the entire community lights votive candles to place on the floor during the wake for the slain Robbins and the collection of contributions to aid his widow Serena in the burial costs.

But the Harlem sets, with distant views of the masts of fishing boats in Charleston Harbor, are distinctive. The two story structure, with its rickety handrails and sagging rooflines, give the right feel for the housing stock that constitutes Catfish Row. The scene on Kitiwah Island is particularly interesting, with vegetation and hanging moss that does evoke the islands of Charleston Sound.

Among American operas, “Porgy” is unusual in that so many of its numbers would be familiar to persons who do not attend opera, yet the more one hears such standards as “A Woman is a Sometimes Thing” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin'” in their operatic context, enveloped by Gershwin’s luxurious musical palette and Dubose Heyward’s incisive libretto, the more revelatory each performance is of the essential genius of this brilliant pair of creative artists.

[Below: The “Porgy and Bess” librettist, Dubose Heyward, with his wife, Dorothy Kuhns Heyward; edited image, based on historic photograph.]

I recommend that persons able to secure tickets to the remaining performances of this run, do so. It’s great music and great drama, and Seattle Opera has produced a labor of love.

For previous reviews of this opera, see: Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera – June 21, 2009, and also,

The Zambello “Porgy and Bess” An Historic Success at Chicago’s Lyric – November 18, 2008.