Anne Midgette reviews the National Opera's 'Porgy and Bess'

in tune: Eric Greene and Alyson Cambridge are striking as Jake and Clara.
in tune: Eric Greene and Alyson Cambridge are striking as Jake and Clara. (Karin Cooper)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

"Porgy and Bess" is a big-picture opera. It's a love story about two people, but its ultimate goal is to create a colorful tapestry filled with music, event and character, giving heroic stature to an underrepresented population -- in this case, the African American inhabitants of Catfish Row, in South Carolina, as seen through the historic blinkers of the opera's white creators.

This aim of monumentality is reflected in every seam, every straining fiber of the revival of Francesca Zambello's 2005 production, which returned to the Washington National Opera on Saturday night. It's huge. There's always something going on in every part of the stage (kids dancing with excitement during a parade; women gossiping in one corner, while men shoot craps in another; a boy nodding off on his mother's shoulder during a funeral). In the pit, meanwhile, John Mauceri lets the drums and brass thunder out as epically as a Wagner opera, notwithstanding a few human flaws as the brass (always a bit challenged in this orchestra) scrambles to get its act together.

That's fitting: "Porgy and Bess" is one of those sprawling works of art that encompasses both greatness and flaws in its big, messy embrace. This production is a perfect reflection of the work's contradictions. It is stirring, due to its size, ambition and conception. It is also disappointing in the sloppiness of its myriad details and its failure, often, to lift its characters beyond a silhouette into actual humanity.

"Porgy and Bess" is 75 years old, still evolving and still difficult to define. It uneasily wears the mantle of a totemic work of or for African American culture. It continues to represent opportunity for artists of color in a field that has been unfortunately slow to create such opportunities; yet it also depicts its protagonists through the use of a bag of racial stereotypes that remain both uncomfortable and all too familiar.

It took years for it to establish itself as an opera rather than a Broadway show, a transition that didn't firmly happen until long after its songs had settled themselves in the national consciousness, even though the whole thing is sung (the only spoken roles belong to the white characters, the detective and policemen who occasionally and brutally trespass into the action). It's the only opera I'm aware of whose creators' names have become a trademark; the Gershwin estate requires it to be cited as "The Gershwins'® Porgy and Bess{+S}{+M}." Even its score exists in many different versions. Mauceri researched and recorded a definitive account in 2006 that appears to hew the most closely to George Gershwin's desires, but the current production was conceived before that, and therefore departs from this in several areas. I can't keep track of all the differences, and I'm not sure how much it matters except to inform Mauceri (himself a former music director of WNO, and a veteran specialist in American music) in his rousing reading, keeping the music alive and vibrant, and even, appropriately, slightly raw through a three-hour evening.

Going through motions

If only the production had succeeded as well. A hit in D.C., and since traveled to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's deliberately big and epic and edgy: Peter J. Davison's sets cast Catfish Row as a kind of prison, with sliding doors like barricades and tenement balconies like cellblocks, surfaces battered, windows broken, sheets of corrugated metal swinging free when the inevitable hurricane strikes.

But by now, the production also appears to have succumbed to some of a hit's complacency. On Saturday, there was too much going through the motions: singers hyperactively telegraphing what they were supposed to be feeling, rather than delving into their characters or their actions.

Take the scene in which Bess, seeking refuge from the police, pounds on several doors, only to have each opened and slammed in her face. The whole thing took place so fast that there was no sense of actual rejection, just of rapidly accomplished choreography. Similarly, when Sportin' Life (as played by Jermaine Smith, a taut, twitching ball of shtick) lures Bess back to drugs after she has given them up, she races across the stage and mimes inhaling the "happy dust" in a single approximate gesture: the force of the moment was diminished by the sense of empty pantomime.

It was surprising to see this kind of carelessness after the vivid, brilliant acting that characterized Zambello's "Siegfried" last spring. You could argue that "Porgy and Bess" only offers sketchy characterizations, but -- particularly in a production that makes a point of updating the action to the 1950s -- there's more to be made of the roles.

The great exception is Porgy, the work's emotional heart, powerfully played on Saturday by Eric Owens, dragging his twisted foot behind him (Zambello's Porgy gets around with a crutch rather than, as in the original, a wheeled cart). Owens sang earlier this season in "Barber of Seville," but Porgy allowed him to come into his own. His deep, rich bass is actually low for the role of Porgy, but the upper notes are certainly within his compass, and if the voice didn't blossom on top as much as it might have, there was abundant compensation in the depths that gave the character an extra dimension of beauty and authority. If the characters in this opera tend to be two-dimensional, it's easy to make Porgy simply a saint, but Owens kept an eye on his humanity, and sang gorgeously.

Morenike Fadayomi may have been overly frenetic in her portrayal of Bess, the fallen woman who can't quite redeem herself through love, but she also did some beautiful singing, with a pure, shining soprano. Terry Cook was a malevolent and strongly sung Crown, edgy and scary and out of control, played in such a way that his hold over Bess, her combined attraction to and terror of him, were all too believable.

In lesser roles

Some of the smaller roles were slender vehicles for the amount of feeling that the singers wanted to put into them, which was one reason they often seemed overdone. Lisa Daltirus, who has been a formidable Tosca and Aida in other houses, made her WNO debut as Serena, the upright Christian whose husband is killed by Crown, Bess's pimp. Eric Greene and Alyson Cambridge made a striking couple as Jake and Clara. Cambridge gets to open the show with "Summertime," the most famous tune in a show rife with famous tunes; it sounded more like an opera aria than a simple lullaby, and she, too, tended to overact. (Her poor baby was jiggled and passed around from one character to another to such an extent that one might have worried about shaken baby syndrome had it not been so obviously a prop.) Gwendolyn Brown, another WNO newcomer, was physically redoubtable, though vocally a bit slender, as Maria.

Among the myriad bit parts (the company made a point of hiring local singers), Samantha McElhaney had a nice turn as the Strawberry Woman, one of a couple of street vendors who provide local color in a gesture familiar from other works of music theater before and since. The opera, indeed, is constructed of a number of tried-and-true ingredients: Scenes involving a town picnic or fete, or a storm, are long-standing theatrical staples (think "Meistersinger" or "The Pajama Game" for the former, "Barber of Seville" or "Mahagonny" for the latter).

"Porgy and Bess" is an important historical document, and is well worth seeing. What Washington National Opera is testing, with the current production, is whether it's the kind of opera people want to see again and again. One infers that the company thinks of it as a popular work that will sell tickets, since they scheduled 12 performances for the spring season (it runs through April 3). But there are plenty of tickets still available. Is it as beloved as other repertory staples, or simply an edifying documentary? The music will endure. Whether the piece will or even should, given the limitations of its portrayal of its characters, is open to question.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company