‘Porgy and Bess’ review: Catfish Row Northwest

Seattle Opera’s elaborate new production complements Gershwin’s American classic 

by ANGELA ALLEN

The stars, and there were several, could have carried Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess. But they didn’t have to. Conceived by Francesca Zambello, the production was spot-on in so many ways—emotionally attuned, musically uplifting, edgily designed and lit— that there was no need for the fine singers, several on the rise, to work overtime.

A co-production with Glimmerglass, the three-hour opera, with a 30-minute intermission, continues with several performances through Aug. 25 at McCaw Hall. It is selling well, but not sold out.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

If you argue with George Gershwin’s music and librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s (with help from Ira Gershwin) portrait of Catfish Row in the mid-1930s, as many have over time, suspend your imagination. Just dive into this piece and leave the cultural politics for another time. Or another discussion. You can’t put this piece into a box: It’s sad, but not a tragedy. It’s funny but not a comedy. Porgy and Bess is utterly moving—hopeful yet stuffed with such tough realities as poverty, fatherlessness, drugs, unfaithfulness, racism, ostracism, crime.

The heart-rockin’ beauty of the music (“Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” and “My Man’s Gone Now”) and the libretto’s variety and cleverness outclass so many operas plagued with dull and stupid words and plots. The songs alone, and you’ve heard them over and over (“Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in history), place the opera at the top of the American repertoire.

John DeMain, 74, who conducted the opera for Seattle in 1987, was back on the podium for this run. He’s led this music many times (the first, at age 32), and his Tony-award-winning Houston conducting helped bring the opera back to life in 1976, so his Porgy history has been a storied one. The music is part of the seamless artistic blend that works so well in this show, with jazz, folk music, klezmer, gospel and classical influences mixed into Gershwin’s Americana pot. Some jazz- and folk-driven instruments are atypical for opera: trombones, saxophones, banjos, clarinets and trumpets, leaving out the strings, except the bass.

Powerful Performances

Porgy is double-cast with Alfred Walker and Kevin Short. Angel Blue and Elizabeth Llewellyn trade off the Bess role in alternating performances. I saw Walker and Blue.

Walker has such an expressive face, powerful body, and strong, clearly projected “inky” voice (as described by Opera News) that it’s easy to remain captivated by his every move. His bass-baritone is ablaze with color and depth, with a fully supported sound that fills the hall. When he and Bess (Angel Blue) begin to fall in love, he changes from defensive and bitter to tender and loving, and his voice moves right along with the emotional tide. “Bess, You Is my Woman Now,” their first duet, soars into the stratosphere. These two are marginalized characters: he a disabled beggar, she a drug-addicted whore who runs with the bad guy, Crown, sung by Lester Lynch. But they find deep comfort in one another. Ironically, through their relationship, they gain access to the community of other Catfish Row African Americans and for a while, lose their outsider status.

Blue as Bess has a liquid sunshine voice with a warm, controlled timbre. Though she disputes the parallel, Blue has been compared to the mid-century African-American diva Leontyne Price for her charisma, beauty and vibrant voice. You might have heard Blue in Portland Opera’s recent Faust as Marguerite or as Violetta in SO’s 2017 La Traviata. Like her co-star Walker, both to appear at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2018-19 season (she as Musetta in La Boheme, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute), Blue is a singer on the rise.

Mary Elizabeth Williams plays Serena in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

As much as Blue embodies Bess, Mary Elizabeth Williams did the same with Serena, the uptight religious matron whose husband is killed by Crown. She owns an explosive, commanding soprano. When she sang “My Man’s Gone Now,” she cried crocodile tears, as she claims in an interview with the Seattle Opera that she does each time she performs that song. She evolves, as do all the characters, and becomes softer as the opera goes on. It is the constant changes and personal evolutions that make the story so human.

Tenor Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life was supremely well cast. He has done the bad-boy role often, and it suits him as well as his dandyish tight-fitting, loud-colored drug-dealer outfit. His comic timing and lithe body made him the ideal charming drug dealer who persuades Bess to leave Catfish Row (and Porgy). His best moment was belting out “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” a spoof on Biblical tales. That is one clever song, and he sings it well.

Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life), with cast members of Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The scenery, anchored by a huge crumbling multi-level structure with doors opening and closing, and shaking at times, had a life of its own. It was supposed to look like the tattered, beat-up mansion on which Catfish Row (originally “Cabbage Row” in South Carolina) was modeled. Peter Davison, who will do Glimmerglass’ upcoming West Side Story, designed the set, and Mark McCulloch, of Royal Opera Covent Garden’s Queen of Spades fame, devised the lighting. Loren Shaw gave freshness to the faded and threadbare clothes; they blended well with the scenery and its well-worn patina.

And the chorus and several minor characters such Strawberry Woman (Ibidunni Ojikutu), Crab Man (tenor Ashley Faatoalia), Maria (contralto Judith Skinner) and soprano Brandie Sutton as Clara (who opened the opera with the heartrending “Summertime”) were top-drawer and on their games. With the huge cast, and bustling choreography by Eric Sean Fogel, Garnett Bruce’s stage direction was admirable, especially when there was more than one plot line going at one time, like Sportin’ Life’s sneaking around during crucial moments. How did he keep all those people from getting in each other’s way?

Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

So was there anything wrong with this elaborate production? No, unless the Depression- era black argot, written by white men and one white woman (Dorothy Heyward added to the play that the opera was based on as well as the lyrics) or the stereotypes (cute drug dealer, beautiful prostitute, kind cripple) are too mawkish and obvious. Put that aside and overwhelmingly, the artistic elements come together to make this Porgy a terrific production.

Just go.

Performances continue Aug. 18, 19, 22, 24 and 25. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. except Aug. 19’s 2 p.m. matinee. Find ticket information here.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

Want to read more about Northwest music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Comments are closed.