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Porgy Triumphant

Kennedy Center Opera House
03/20/2010 -  & March 21m, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28m, 30, 31, April 01, 03
George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
Alyson Cambridge (Clara), Keith Craig (Mingo), Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life), Eric Greene (Jake), Lisa Daltirus (Serena), Keith H. Pennick (Robbins), Robert Cantrell (Jim), Norwood Robinson (Peter), Kehembe V. Eichelberger (Lily), Gwendolyn Brown (Maria), Eric Owens (Porgy), Terry Cook (Crown), Morenike Fadayomi (Bess), John Weber (Detective), W. Paul Edson (Policeman), Stanley Webber (Undertaker), Jihanna Charlton-Davis (Annie), Marvin Lowe (Frazier), Prince Edward Havely (Nelson), Samantha McElhaney (Strawberry Woman), Don Jones (Crabman), Jeffrey Tarr (Coroner)
Chorus of the Washington National Opera, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Orchestra of the Washington National Opera, John Mauceri (Conductor)
Francesca Zambello (Stage Director), Peter J. Davison (Set Designer),
Paul Tazewell (Costume Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer), Jennie Ford (Choreographer), Cliff Williams III (Fight Master), Elsen Associates (Wigs and Makup)

E. Owens, M. Fadayomi (© Karin Cooper)

The Washington National Opera opens its Spring Season with a triumphant revival of its highly acclaimed 2006 production of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The production, brilliantly conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello, is visually stunning, beautifully lit, dramatically taut, magnificently sung, and masterfully conducted by former Washington Opera music director John Mauceri. This production, which has been touring major opera houses around the US, such as Los Angeles (2007), Chicago (2008), and San Francisco (2009), celebrates the 75th anniversary of this classic American opera.

With so many aspects to laud, it is difficult to know exactly where to begin, but let me start with the conductor. I can hardly believe it has been at least 20 years since Maestro Mauceri was on the podium of the Washington Opera. He was such an exciting presence and force on the Washington music scene when the Kennedy Center first opened. There is perhaps no conductor in the world more knowledgeable or intimate with this score. It is a work he was born to conduct. Although this production employs the standard abridged version of the score, Maestro Mauceri has researched, restored, and recorded George Gershwin’s original, full-length score for Decca Records. He led a loving and dramatically convincing performance that reveled in the melodic luxury and vibrantly rhythmic aspects of the music. The work abounds with famous songs that have become standards of the American musical lexicon, such as “Summertime,” “It ain’t necessarily so,” “I got plenty of nuttin’,” “Bess, you is my woman now,” and “My man’s gone now.” Mauceri maintained tight control of the orchestra, making it play with great style and verve, and he inspired the singers to give their very best all evening. He is a real “singers” conductor, who knows instinctively where to let them soar on their own, and where to rein them in. It was a distinct pleasure to watch him in action. Considering the sprawling components that need to be solidified in an opera like Porgy, I would say the major success of the performance rested squarely on his most capable shoulders.

Francesca Zambello’s direction, which updated the action from the 1920’s to the 1950’s was filled with dramatic details and intensely probing characterizations. The characters in this opera can often seem to be cartoon-like stereotypes of Southern Negro “low-lives.” But Zambello imbues them with a universal humanity that is recognizable to all in today’s society whether Black or White, and she makes us share in their joy and pain. Speaking of her concept Zambello says it “deals with deep, uniquely American issues, ones which are still very much with us. There are few American music theater pieces that confront crucial issues like race and class in the same way that Mozart and Verdi did in their time.” Zambello also provides plenty of onstage action in the large choral scenes. Men are shooting “craps,” children are chasing and playing, women are gossiping and hanging laundry to dry, vendors are selling, and drug dealers are dealing. She is a remarkably sensitive director with great insight, imagination, and perception.

The sets by Peter J. Davison are also impressive. What at first seems to be stacks of box cars, corrugated sheet metal, and clothes lines, soon become, under Mark McCullough’s highly atmospheric lighting, tenement row houses and apartments in a South Carolina ghetto.
The colorful and accurate costumes by Paul Tazewell effectively add to the mix, which transports us instantly to the “Catfish Row” of author DoBose Heyward’s imaginary Charleston, South Carolina community. It is a wonderfully evocative and “eye-catching” staging, that perfectly “sets” the scene.

Heading this cast of remarkable singers is of course the Porgy of Eric Owens. He is imposing in both stature and voice. Forgoing the traditional wheel-cart for a crutch, Owens drags his crippled leg and dominates the stage in a manner that is both commanding and pathetic.
His singing has great power and his voice is unusually rich. The famous melodies written for Porgy take wing under his prowess and soar in the Opera House. He was unforgettable in his rendition of “I’ve got plenty of nuttin’.”

Just as persuasive is the Bess of British/Nigerian soprano Morenike Fadayomi. Her voice is apparently capable of doing anything. She produces velvety floated pianissimo notes, while being equally adept at full-throttled and sustained vocal outbursts on the very top. Her acting was memorable, giving a very detailed portrayal of a woman who has been used and abused by men her entire life. Bess is not at first a likeable or sympathetic character. She embodies all of the frailties of womankind, and the original sin of Eve. She possesses neither the nobility of a Norma nor the sweetness of a Mimi. But we come to understand why she is the woman she is.
Morenike’s powerful portrayal is hard hitting and revealing, undoubtedly nurtured under Zambello’s supervision. It is both sultry and vulnerable. She was simply thrilling in the famous duet with Porgy, “Bess you is my woman now.”

Porgy and Bess opens with the most famous song in the score, “Summertime.” It was gorgeously sung by Washington soprano Alyson Cambridge as Clara. She appropriately delivered it as an operatic aria rather than a “Broadway Lullaby.” It has taken years for Porgy and Bess to make it from the Broadway stages into the opera houses, and it is ingratiating to hear the music delivered in the way that Gershwin envisioned it. As her husband Jake, baritone Eric Greene also displayed a wonderful voice and acting style. His singing of “A woman is a sometime thing” was a highlight of the evening.

Terry Cook as Bess’ lover/pimp Crown was wildly malevolent and forceful. As with all the cast, he too possessed a rich and beautiful voice. He was intimidating and detestable, as he should be in all of his scenes, which gave Morenike a great deal to work against.

Another vocal standout was soprano Lisa Daltirus as Serena. She is also a noted Tosca and Aida, which gave her the wherewithal to deliver “My man’s gone now” with all of the requisite operatic thrust and vocalism. This piece is probably the most demanding aria of the entire opera and Ms. Daltirus’ rendition packed quite a vocal and dramatic wallop.

Jermaine Smith was oily, comical, and sinister as the drug dealing pimp Sportin’ Life. His famous song “It ain’t necessarily so” is the “jazziest” number is the score. It requires a certain knowledge of and finesse with the Jazz style to properly convey the song as it uses many popular devices such as “scat” and improvisation. Mr. Smith was adept at all of this, and, combined with his dance talents, he was most impressive and entertaining.

If I may digress for a moment, many of the songs in this score require a certain amount of (for lack of a better terminology) Black Bel Canto. By that I mean cadenzas, variations, scats, interpolations, etc. that are inherent in the Black vocal vocabulary. They are used in the same manner one would interpolate into a Donizetti opera, but they are peculiar to the African/American musical style. I cannot imagine any Caucasian or Asian artists being able to deliver this in a stylistically credible fashion. To hear this cast perform these variations, and especially Mr. Smith, was an education in the art of the Jazz style. Two notable walk-on vendors who employed these stylistic devices to great effect were Samantha McElhaney as the Strawberry Woman and Don Jones as the Crab Man.

Particularly notable in other smaller roles are the richly voiced Keith Craig as Mingo, Keith H. Pennick as Robbins, Robert Cantrell as Jim, Norwood Robinson as Peter, Kehembe V. Eichelberger who made a lovely Lily, Gwendolyn Brown as Maria, and Jihanna Charlton-Davis as Annie. The chorus, which plays such a large and important role in this opera, sing superbly, and are impeccably trained by Steven Gathman.

This production of Porgy and Bess is remarkable in every detail and demonstrates the emphasis Washington National Opera places on quality. Like all opera companies in the United States today, the WNO is working against the constraints of a severely weakened economy, which has forced them to cut back on the number of productions they are able to mount in a given season. But whether they are able to accomplish ten productions or only five, the management is determined to sustain a level of the highest quality and professionalism. To that commitment they are eminently successful and they deserve sincere kudos and congratulations. Todd Duncan, the great American baritone who created the role of Porgy as well as Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, was a longtime resident of Washington, D. C. He would have been very proud of this production.

Washington National Opera

Micaele Sparacino



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