Washington Opera updates a compelling `Porgy'



Every aspect of George Gershwin's genius found its way into his opera Porgy and Bess - the uncommon variety and distinctiveness of melody, the powerful rhythmic undertow, the just-right degree of sentiment or humor. Above all, the humanity.

Somehow, by focusing on the lives of dirt-poor African-Americans along the South Carolina coast, the composer shed light on all of us. Enriched by Gershwin's music, the story, based on DuBose Heyward's novel and play, gains the element of universality that characterizes all great works of art. It's real. Too real, sometimes.

That reality is driven home in Washington National Opera's new production.

Director Francesca Zambello and set designer Peter J. Davison have updated the action from the original 1920s to the 1950s and contained it within a claustrophobic unit set that eschews even a hint of Low Country quaintness. A harshly metallic, decaying environment suggests a cruel factory or inhuman prison.

This Catfish Row becomes a symbol for the larger containment of one race, one class by another. But it's also a place where a genuine community thrives, where people have learned to nurture and comfort each other, to fend off threats, to value the smallest pleasures.

When, at the end, Porgy breaks free of this small world to seek his Bess, we get to see, for the first time, a flash of sky beyond the walls of that pitiful compound, a taste of hope and possibility. Strong stuff.

Washington National, staging the opera for the first time in its 50 years, has assembled a cast to match the telling visuals. (Actually two casts; another set of singers for several of the roles will alternate with the first, starting this weekend.)

Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Gordon Hawkins gave a commanding, sympathetic performance as the crippled beggar Porgy - in this production, a somewhat more mobile and upright character than usual. Although his baritone thinned out at the very top, the rest was firm, warm and unusually rich in dynamic nuance. He achieved remarkable poignancy in the final scene, when Porgy slowly, painfully realizes that Bess has deserted him.

Indira Mahajan caught the proud, sultry, Carmen-like side of Bess as easily as the vulnerable, frightened side, and her soprano carried considerable expressive weight. Angela Simpson filled the theater with a strikingly potent soprano as Serena, delivering a knockout "My Man's Gone Now" and "Oh, Doctor Jesus."

Terry Cook's Crown proved physically and vocally imposing. Jermaine Smith's Sportin' Life cavorted through the opera like a malicious, yet irresistible, Puck, spreading "happy dust" and cynicism with glee, and using his light tenor with imaginative flair. Marietta Simpson brought authority, if limited vocal power, to the role of Maria.

The rest of the soloists and the vitally important chorus filled in musical details vividly.

A measure of the production's quality came in the little scene of the strawberry and crab sellers, who peddle their wares to some of Gershwin's most atmospheric - and idiomatic - music. Samantha McElhaney and, especially, Don Jones enhanced these small roles terrifically, making each sing-song cry magical.

Wayne Marshall conducted with incisive understanding. A momentary coordination lapse aside, the orchestra was in cracking form.

Zambello generated several compelling stage pictures, notably the funeral scene, while maintaining an overall momentum and sweep. Natasha Katz's lighting neatly underlined key moments (garish intrusion when Sportin' Life lures Bess with visions of New York, for example).

If there's anyone left who doesn't realize that Porgy and Bess is the great American opera, this production would surely serve as a tough persuader.


Porgy and Bess will be performed through Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, N.W., Washington. For tickets, call 800-876-7372 or visit dc-opera.org.

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