By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005
The early death of George Gershwin -- from a brain tumor, at the age of 38 -- was nothing short of a calamity for American music. Here, if anywhere, was just the composer who might have united all of the strains that made up our fertile and wondrously polyglot mid-20th century musical culture -- jazz, blues, popular song, European classical stylings, modernist experimentation -- and, in the almost 70 years since Gershwin's death, nobody has even come close.
Now Washington National Opera has mounted a loving, sumptuous and creative production of Gershwin's most ambitious work, "Porgy and Bess." It should be seen and heard by anybody with an interest in our creative heritage, of course, but ought to win some new friends for opera in general. There will be nine more performances through Nov. 19; moreover, for those who don't want to pay opera-house prices, WNO has arranged for a gift to the city -- a live outdoor telecast will be presented on the Mall at 2 p.m. on Nov. 6.
Nobody has ever mistaken "Porgy" for perfect opera. Even with some 25 minutes gone from the score (a customary trim and one that WNO observed) it makes for a long evening in the theater. The great tunes -- "Summertime," "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and, especially, the resplendent "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," as searing and luscious a love duet as anything Puccini ever created -- deserve every bit of their extraordinary popularity. But there are many passages that will be unfamiliar to all but the most fervent admirer.
And rightly so, for Gershwin's gift for extended musico-dramatic evocation had not yet caught up with his songwriting. This was, after all, his only opera; still, it says much for the composer's abilities that "Porgy" is one of the infinitesimally few first operas to gain any sort of foothold in the active repertory. (You can go for decades without hearing the earliest stage works of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini or Richard Strauss, for example.)
Gershwin based the opera on a novel by DuBose Heyward; the two men, joined by Gershwin's brother Ira and Heyward's wife, Dorothy, fashioned the libretto. This, too, is problematic, for the result, set in Charleston's poorest neighborhood, is a compendium of racial stereotypes, a sort of "Amos 'n' Andy" with murders. Virtually all of the characters are shiftless, superstitious lowlife -- a bunch of crap-shootin,' drug-takin,' Lawd-praisin' no-accounts. I don't think the Gershwins and Heywards were racists but I do think they were tourists -- privileged visitors overly infatuated by a scintilla of underclass vice -- and if I were African American, I suspect that much of "Porgy and Bess" would come as an affront.
Only Porgy -- the lame, kindly, haunted beggar Porgy -- is fully human. The role was sung on Saturday by Gordon Hawkins, an inspired singing actor who made the most of Porgy's urgency and desperation, touched the heart not just once but again and again, and carried the evening on his broad shoulders.
The singing was on a high level throughout. The character of Bess -- a walking compendium of social ailments -- was sung with brilliance and ardor by Indira Mahajan. Jermaine Smith, who played Sportin' Life (and is one of the few artists who will appear in all 10 performances), has the moves and charisma of a born showman, and he sang the sleazy part in a disconcertingly pure high voice.
Somewhat curiously, Gershwin gave the opera's big soprano aria -- "Summertime" -- to Clara, a relatively minor character who was sung sweetly by Laquita Mitchell. Terry Cook was all hustle and malevolence as Crown. Eric Greene, who sang the role of Jake, has a rich tenor voice of unusual beauty and luster. Angela Simpson made a glistening, empathic Serena, radiant even in her sorrow, while Dara Rahming brought a commanding authority to the part of Lily. Painstaking and obvious care was taken even in the casting of the smaller roles: Eric Reed as Jasbo Brown, Robert Cantrell as Robbins and Don Jones as the Crab Man, among them.
From the beginning of the evening, when conductor Wayne Marshall refused to halt the music so that "Summertime" might be applauded, it was obvious that he was intent on treating "Porgy and Bess" seriously, rather than as a collection of hits. His brisk, sweeping approach paid off splendidly -- I've never heard the opera sound so unified and organic -- and the increasingly fine WNO Orchestra played fiercely for him. The WNO Chorus, however, was not quite up to its usual, spot-on accuracy on opening night.
Director Francesca Zambello's production is one of the best things I've seen from her, combining as it does the rusty, antiquated urban design of the original "Sweeney Todd" with a mixture of bristling exuberance and stark fatalism. Scenes flowed into one another with the fluidity of cinema. Some of the fights were less than impressive, with people swinging at air and missing. And I shudder to think of what a pediatrician might have made of the way Clara's wrapped, unseen baby was tossed from hand to hand as though it were nothing more than a log in a blanket. Still, the power and gravity of the story inevitably came through.
Porgy and Bess will be repeated Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, Nov. 7, 10, 12, 15, 18 and 19. Most of the major roles will be sung by two different casts: Go to http://www.dc-opera.org/ or call 202-295-2400 for information.