For the 2011/2012 season opener, Seattle Opera has chosen to mount George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera “Porgy and Bess.” Performed rarely and only recently accepted as a “serious” opera, George Gershwin’s masterpiece gets the treatment it deserves in this stellar production.
The Gershwins’ music may be the best example of the genre known as “Americana.” Who doesn’t know at least part of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” or “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”? His work is ingrained in the American psyche and is there to stay.
The opera opens with the wild jazzy chords of the overture but soon gives way to the haunting lullaby which Gershwin is so famous for, “Summertime.” As Clara, the young mother, Angel Blue sets the bar high – hers is the first voice we hear, and it is a joy to listen to. Both painful and poignant, her “Summertime” exemplifies the deep emotional quality that Gershwin’s music has when performed at its best.
This quality is captured and sustained throughout – I found myself more emotionally moved than I have been by any previous opera. The high points came when Mary Elizabeth Williams, as Serena, took center stage. She has a powerful and mellifluous voice, but it is not abrasive or belting – it conveys both the exquisite sorrow of “My Man’s Gone Now” and the fervent hope of “Doctor Jesus.” It thrills me to know that Ms. Williams is at the beginning of her career – I look forward to her next appearance on the Seattle stage.
Just as riveting is Lisa Daltirus as Bess; she too commands the stage with her gorgeously full voice – her “I Loves You, Porgy” stayed with me well after the curtain had fallen. And as for the object of her affections, Gordon Hawkins as Porgy proved himself to be a good actor and an even better singer (though he was quiet at first, by the end of the evening he held his own). “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” were sung with gusto and subtlety, bringing Porgy to life as a sympathetic, lonely man in love.
As the “third man” in the relationship, Crown, here played by Michael Redding, was in good vocal form, though he lacked physical size and charisma – he didn’t stand out in any way, good or bad. On the other hand, playing the other “third man,” Jermaine Smith exuded charisma as Sportin’ Life, the amiable dope peddler turned pimp. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” succeeded in making me laugh frequently and fully, and Mr. Smith’s aerobics around the stage kept my eyes permanently affixed on him. His exchanges with Maria (Gwendolyn Brown, whose acting chops matched her vocal powers – both excellent) were particularly noteworthy.
“Porgy and Bess” is an opera that touches people’s hearts. The woman next to me sat in rapture throughout, though she regained her composure long enough to hum quietly along to most of the big numbers. And to me, that shows the power of Gershwin, or at least of well-performed Gershwin, which Seattle Opera’s production most certainly is.
To get a little taste of Porgy and Bess for yourself, check out these options from the Seattle Public Library.
Evan, Teen Volunteer