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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 17, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 33
Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess fills the stage with life
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess fills the stage with life

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
PORGY AND BESS
BY GEORGE GERSHWIN
LIBRETTO BY DUBOSE HEYWARD,
DOROTHY HEYWARD & IRA GERSWHIN
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
August 11 & 12 (through August 25)


I can pretty much guarantee that you'll never have the opportunity to attend a better production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess than the one now playing at Seattle Opera, co-produced with Glimmerglass Festival. An extraordinary cast, spectacular singing and acting and dancing, fabulous sets and costumes, perfect lighting to enhance the drama, an excellent orchestra conducted by the man who re-introduced Porgy and Bess into the opera repertoire in 1976, and Gershwin's incredible music: who could ask for anything more?

This production, created by Francesca Zambello and directed in Seattle by Garnett Bruce, conveys the feeling of a community - Catfish Row (based on Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina - where people struggle to scrape out a living and help each other survive poverty and racism. From the moment the curtain rises, the stage is full of the life of that community. No one is idle for an instant, and we're constantly made aware of the web of social and family relationships, the tension between the 'God-fearing' and the 'God-damning' factions of the community.

Even if you've never seen Porgy and Bess on stage, you're sure to be familiar with its music. Everybody has heard at least one arrangement of 'Summertime,' 'It Ain't Necessarily So,' 'Bess, You Is My Woman Now,' 'I Loves You, Porgy,' 'I Got Plenty of Nothin',' and 'My Man's Gone Now.' All of these songs have much more meaning in the context of the drama, and you haven't really heard 'My Man's Gone Now' unless you've heard it sung by powerhouse soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams. Williams' performance as Serena in Porgy and Bess earned her a Seattle Opera Artist of the Year award in 2011, and if anything, her acting and singing skills are even more formidable now.

In the title roles of Porgy and Bess, bass-baritones Alfred Walker and Kevin Short and sopranos Angel Blue and Elizabeth Llewellyn are all superb, singing beautifully and bringing complexity and nuance to the stereotypes of the noble disabled man and the drug-addled loose woman. In my opinion, it really doesn't matter which pairing is featured in the performance you attend, because all four of these singers are so strong and because no other roles are double-cast.

One of the wonders of this opera is that although the cast is large, Porgy and Bess is a true ensemble work, in which many members of the chorus have solo moments when they become important characters and then step back into the community at large. In this production, there isn't a weak link. Every singer is worthy of the solos, and the chorus as a whole has a glorious sound. Among the standouts are Judith Skinner as the feisty shopkeeper Maria, Ibidunni Ojikutu as Strawberry Woman, Ashley Faataolia as Crab Man, and Martin Bakari as Peter/Honey Man.

Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel must have rehearsed extensively with this talented cast to produce the magnificent dance sequences and the use of expressive movement by every character in every scene.

All aspects of the production are flawless. The gorgeous (and appropriately dilapidated) sets designed by Peter J. Davison, equally gorgeous (and suitably rumpled) costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and Loren Shaw, and super-dramatic lighting designed by Mark McCullough are extremely effective in creating and sustaining a sense of gritty reality, punctuated by moments of joy, grief, or fear.

The two threats to Bess's relationship with Porgy and to her safety in the world are her abusive lover Crown (Lester Lynch) and her drug dealer Sportin' Life (Jermaine Smith). Lynch does a fine job in his villainous role, and Smith conveys perfectly the charm and vivacity of a slick con man. Smith has played Sportin' Life in many productions all over the world, and his is a masterful performance. He knows every note of the score and times every flick of his hands and twitch of his legs to coincide with the notes being played by the orchestra.

Speaking of the orchestra, it's enormous and it sounds terrific. Conductor John DeMain has been conducting Porgy and Bess since 1976, when he advocated successfully for returning it to its operatic roots. Although Gershwin wrote Porgy as an opera, it had been produced exclusively as a musical for 40 years until DeMain presented it at Houston Grand Opera, where he was music director at the time. Since then, he has conducted more than 400 performances of Porgy, and this is the fourth time he will have conducted it for Seattle Opera. It's an understatement to say that he's an expert. With all the visual splendors of this production, an audience member could have enjoyed either performance I attended with eyes closed.

Porgy and Bess is a wonderful opera both musically and dramatically, but one that has also been problematic for audiences and casts. As Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor writes in her excellent article in the program, 'It's a source of pride. It's a source of stereotypes.' On the one hand, this was the first serious opera about African Americans, and the first to be performed by African American singers. In 1935 it was common for black characters in plays and musicals to be played by whites in blackface, so Gershwin's opera represented a great step forward and a great opportunity for African American singers. On the other hand, the opera was written by white people, and even today, production teams for Porgy are predominantly white. The issue of cultural appropriation arises; and the use of dialect and the assumption that murder, drug-dealing, and domestic violence would have been common parts of a tight-knit African American community cause plenty of discomfort in today's audiences and casts.

As it did a year ago for Madama Butterfly, Seattle Opera has confronted the problems with Porgy head-on, as an opportunity for audience education. The lobby at McCaw Hall contains a fine display of instructive material, and the Seattle Opera Blog is full of thoughtful, interesting pieces about the history of Porgy and great interviews with African American cast members and other artists and activists (seattleoperablog.com/p/black-voices-in-response-to-porgy-and.html). In addition, Seattle Opera and Glimmerglass Festival collaborated last month to present an outstanding forum about 'equity, diversity and inclusion in opera; how art is produced in an increasingly diversified America; who has the right to tell whose story; and what roles social justice plays within the artistic mission of an opera company.' A video recording of the two-hour forum is available on YouTube, and it is well worth watching. To find it, search for 'Breaking Glass' at youtube.com.

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