Sep 7th 2018

Review of Seattle Opera’s “Porgy and Bess”

by James Bash

 

James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music. James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy.


With a large cast, full orchestra, and incredible jazz-inflected music, “Porgy and Bess” stands alone as the one American opera that is recognized around the world. Written by George Gershwin and premiered in 1935 on Broadway, it had to wait until mid-1980s to become a standard of the operatic repertoire. The jazz idiom that Gershwin used was surely one of the reasons that “Porgy and Bess” was adopted slowly by the operatic world. But another roadblock was the story, which told about the love between a crippled beggar, Porgy, and a drug-addicted woman, Bess, who live in an impoverished African-American community in the South. Seattle Opera’s presentation, heard on opening night, August 11th, at McCaw Hall, conveyed the drama compellingly with all-star performances by the principals and company.

Co-produced by Glimmerglass Festival, Seattle Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess” was directed by Garnett Bruce after the original direction of Francesca Zambello. The direction fit each character like a glove except for the scene in which Bess carries Clara and Jake’s baby and places it in a large planter next to Porgy’s door. Surely she could have given it to someone who just happened to walk by, but instead, the bundle gets abandoned for a good while before Bess picks it up again.

Scenic designer Peter J. Davison set Catfish Row as an enclave of rundown tenements with metal frames that suggested prison cells. Costumes by Paul Tazewell were updated to reflect the 1950s.

Alfred Walker embodied Porgy with a full-throated earnestness that had depth and compassion. Angel Blue embraced the conflicted and vulnerable character of Bess with passion. Lester Lynch struck fear into the hearts of everyone as the menacing Crown. Mary Elizabeth Williams as Serena summoned the most soulful wail that I’ve ever heard when she sang “My Man’s Gone Now,” after the death of her husband.

Jermaine Smith snaked and slid around with a grin and impeccable timing as the drug-dealin’ Sportin’ Life. He impressively executed a cheerleading jump toe-touch (mid-air jump) that probably no other male opera singer could do. He sang “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with panache and made it all look effortless.

Brandie Sutton expressed Clara with a lovely soprano while Derrick Parker filled Jake’s shoes with a bass-baritone was deep as a well. Edwin Graves distinguished himself as Robbins and Martin Barkari as Peter the Honeyman. Judith Skinner’s Maria scorched Sportin’ Life with her eyes and verbal delivery. Ashley Faatoalia’s Crab Man, Ibidunni Ojikutu’s Strawberry Woman, and Bernard Holcomb’s Mingo and the chorus added wonderfully to the atmosphere of the community.

In terms of balance with the voices on stage, the orchestra was flawless, but the music could have had a little more swing and pizazz. That was a little surprising, because John DeMain, who has an acclaimed history with this opera, was on the podium. Still, the production was genuinely rewarding right down to the final uplifting number, “I’m On My Way,” in which Porgy announces his quest to find Bess against all odds.

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