The company gave more lip service to its embrace of diversity with the announcement that it will perform its first opera by a black composer (Terence Blanchard; date not yet announced), and with an exhibition and audio recording called “Black Voices at the Met.” Whatever you think about the Met’s sudden bid for a social conscience, giving more space to black artists is a good thing, from both a moral and an artistic standpoint. And this “Porgy” was one of the company’s more dynamic opening nights in some time.
Like so many other operas, “Porgy” is dated: written by white men and rife with the stereotypes of its time. It attempts to present a broad canvas informed by social realism, a kind of pageant depicting black life in the South in the first part of the 20th century. James Robinson’s production, which opened at English National Opera last year, embraced the period, presenting a stage thick with intertwined bodies in dingy clothes in tableaux reminiscent of American paintings of the 1920s and 1930s (Reginald Marsh came to mind), framed by the skeletal houses of Michael Yeargan’s restlessly rotating set. Amid the packed crowdscapes, the herky-jerky jittering of the handful of dancers in Camille A. Brown’s choreography struck a deliberately jangly note, a cartoonish evocation of religious fervor.
But it was the vividness of the characterizations and the singing, through to the special chorus hired for the occasion (because the Met’s regular chorus is not all-black by a long shot), that made the evening. “Porgy and Bess” calls for a huge cast and an eye to detail, and a group of gifted singing artists brought the characters to life with dignity rather than shtick or condescension.
It’s a treat to emerge from an opera filled with excitement about so many good singers. Soprano Latonia Moore poured heart and passion and radiant voice into the role of Serena, who keens over her murdered husband. Denyce Graves, the veteran star mezzo, made Maria a credible tough broad rather than an archetypal matriarch, wielding her voice like a sword. Ryan Speedo Green brought his warm, mellifluous bass to a loving characterization of Jake, family man, dad to a new baby and husband of Clara, who as sung by Golda Schultz was less sheerly beautiful of voice and more believable as a person than I’ve often seen her. Alfred Walker was genuinely scary, and vocally powerful, as the out-of-control Crown.
Two other standouts were alumni of the Washington National Opera’s young-artist program. Tenor Frederick Ballentine made his Met debut as Sportin’ Life, sinuously sinister despite his ingratiating mien, less the clown than he is sometimes played, and with a vocal authority that made it sound as if he had commanded this huge stage for years. And soprano Leah Hawkins, currently a member of the Met’s Lindemann program, made a small piece of performance art out of the cameo role of a fruit seller, the Strawberry Woman.
Eric Owens and Angel Blue, at the heart of all this, were a respectable Porgy and Bess — almost too respectable. Owens has taken on Porgy a number of times in his career, despite the fact that the role lies a little high for his deep bass-baritone voice. He is singing very well these days, but the higher phrases still do not ring out in his voice the way they are meant to; “I got plenty o’ nuttin’ ” was one aria that slightly paled because of that. He was an earnest, stalwart lover to Blue’s vulnerable Bess. Tall and imposing, Blue played a character so wounded and so fundamentally decent that her addictions (to drugs, to men) were a little hard to credit. This was a Bess without bad-girl fire, although pouring out great arcs of sound.
One welcome sign of the times is that there is no longer any real point to questioning whether this work is opera or musical or “belongs” in an opera house; like so many other problematic canonical works, it has taken its place at the table. (It will return to the Washington National Opera this spring.) The Met orchestra musicians, under the dynamic David Robertson, had no problem tapping into the less “classical” aspects of the jazz-inflected score, without sounding awkward.
At the start of the evening, the jolt of energy from the stage sparked a sense of poignancy, a reminder of how, for many years, this work was one of the only outlets for black vocal talent. But in this production, all the leads except Ballentine had sung other leading roles at the Met, helping the all-black cast to signal not limitation but liberation, in a warmly received evening.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Met had commissioned its first opera by a black composer. It will be performing its first opera by a black composer — Terence Blanchard.