The Washington National Opera opened its dazzling new production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” on Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. WNO’s first-ever presentation of this American masterpiece marks a welcome break from the company’s sometimes-predictable recent repertoire.
Slightly updated to the late 1940s from the original, set in the 1920s, the production’s gritty, post-industrialist sets and tense racial standoffs reveal an impoverished Southern black community in all its richness and religious fervor, but foreshadows the beginning of the end of Jim Crow.
Based on a novel-turned-play by South Carolina native DuBose Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, “Porgy” is set in the seething black tenements of Charleston’s “Catfish Row — 89-91 Church Street — known in Heyward’s time as “Cabbage Row.” (And predictably today a warren of trendy shops.)
Basing his Porgy on a real Charleston character, Heyward’s novel tells of the crippled Porgy’s tragic love for his drug-addicted Bess, whom he takes in after her longtime lover, the brutal Crown, murders an innocent neighbor with a cotton hook. Porgy eventually slays Crown but loses Bess to the conniving drug dealer, Sportin’ Life, who whisks her off to an uncertain future in New York. But, in one of the great and most quintessentially American moments in opera, Porgy refuses to accept defeat, limping toward New York to save Bess once again as the curtain falls.
Since its debut in the mid-1930s, “Porgy” has been ridiculed by Eurocentric musicologists and derided as well by American blacks who have regarded it as inauthentic. But since the opera was restored pretty much as Gershwin had intended in the mid-1970s, it has found its way into the repertoire, propelled forward not by race, class or politics, but by the irresistible, jazzy magnificence of its score, which includes the immortal “Summertime,” as well as “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin,’” and plenty more.
Although occasionally out of sync with the orchestra, the cast of WNO’s “Porgy,” under the direction of Francesca Zambello, performed with uncommon brilliance. Highlights, however, were not always where you expected them. For example, the large, locally-cast chorus was the vibrant heart of this show — a tight, accurate ensemble unafraid to inject old-time gospel riffs into the singing.
Likewise, soprano Angela Simpson’s devastating keening at the wake of her murdered husband, Robbins (tenor Michael Forest), gripped the audience with its intense sorrow. It also was a deft touch to begin the opera with the oft-cut Jasbo Brown piano solo, played on an out-of-tune honky-tonk piano by jazz pianist Eric Reed. And, as Clara, soprano Laquita Mitchell delivered a moving rendition of the opera’s signature “Summertime” as the curtain rose.
This production has plenty of star-power. Gordon Hawkins unveiled an imposing Porgy, projecting him as a real hero in spite of his deformity, with a rich, room-filling baritone and impeccable diction. As his Bess, soprano Indira Mahajan portrayed an almost shockingly unsympathetic woman, lending a complex authenticity to her character’s weakness for drugs and sex. Her stratospheric high notes never missed their mark.
Also turning in memorable performances were bass Terry Cook as the thuggish Crown, and tenor Jermaine Smith as a sprightly, slightly over-the-top Sportin’ Life. The orchestra, including banjo and wind and thunder machines, under the baton of Wayne Marshall liberated the thick modernism and improvisational jazz slides always lurking in Gershwin’s edgy score.
WHO: The Washington National Opera
WHAT: George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House