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Porgy Digs Deep in Cast, Production

McCaw Hall
07/31/2011 -  & August 3, 6, 10, 12, 14, 20, 2011
George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
Gordon Hawkins (Porgy), Lisa Daltirus (Bess), Michael Redding (Crown), Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life), Angel Blue (Clara), Donovan Singletary (Jake), Mary Elizabeth Williams (Serena), Gwendolyn Brown (Maria), Michael Austin (Robbins)
The Seattle Opera Orchestra, John DeMain (Conductor)
Chris Alexander (Stage Director), Michael Scott (Set Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Kabby Mitchell III (Choreographer), New York Harlem Theatre (Sets and Costumes)

G. Hawkins (© Elise Bakketun)

Even if Gordon Hawkins has performed Porgy more than 150 times, he and his full baritone continue to sing the role with emotion as deep as the fishing waters off Catfish Row.

And if we are overly familiar with many of its songs – “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” and spry tenor Jermaine Smith’s Sportin’ Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” little tops hearing the full operatic version.

So often the George Gershwin masterpiece (with libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward), which opened in 1935, shortly before the brilliant American composer died at 38, is reduced to Broadway-like productions and snippets of songs. This full-blown version was revived in the mid-1970s in part by John DeMain, who conducted the piece for this first Seattle Opera production this summer. (Porgy and Bess has passed through town other times in the last 20 years with touring companies.)

Much of the cast has sung the roles in the past, making the complex and layered music (jazz, blues, operatic interludes, gospel, Russian-Jewish music, spirituals) seem easy. It’s anything but. As Seattle opera’s general director Speight Jenkins says Porgy and Bess, often pigeonholed as a humble folk opera, is a very serious work. “It combines the best of popular culture with extremely sophisticated orchestral and vocal composition.”

And to Jenkins’ credit, he gathers a cast of veterans including Hawkins, Lisa Daltirus who sings Bess, Smith as Sportin’ Life, Gwendolyn Brown as Maria (the major-domo of Catfish Row) to sing the very human, often sad, sometimes longing and bittersweet roles of African-American life in the 1920s. What has more poignancy than “Summertime,” the opening melody that soprano Clara (Angel Blue) sings to her baby, expressing newborn hope as she croons “when your daddy is rich and your mama’s good lookin’”?

The opera is not strictly a tragedy, though Bess succumbs to “happy dust,” abusive men, (Porgy is an exception), and Sportin’ Life (“there’s a boat that’s leaving soon for New York”). The strong-spirited Porgy leaves Catfish Row to find her (“Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way”), and you just know he never will. Hurricanes, death and murders happen, but still it’s not a tragedy. Most of the community survives.

Over the decades, critics have argued that Porgy promotes racial and racist stereotypes. However you judge the opera’s politics written about 80 years ago, the love story between Porgy, a crippled and onetime embittered stevedore, and the weak but sympathetic Bess, brings out some of the loveliest music that Gershwin wrote. “I Loves You, Porgy,” which Daltirus lets loose from her rich soprano, proves a tear-jerker and an opera high point, (as is Serena’s first act rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now,” sung by talented soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams).

The cast was coached in the Gullah dialect, a local patois native to the barrier islands off Charleston, S.C., that’s pretty much gone now. Without the English captions overhead to help, much of the language would have been lost to the audience.

Duane Schuler’s lighting creates a sense of faded daguerreotypes. The lighting is simply breathtaking, without the glitter and glow of many operas. With such a big cast, including a number of children, to move around, it unifies the stage.

Be ready to hear what you’ve heard before in a far more profound and moving way. The melodies, of course, are classics and will last forever, but seeing the opera as a whole (Gershwin’s wish) takes it to a new level.

Angela Allen



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