A revelatory Porgy and Bess in Seattle

United StatesUnited States Gershwin, Porgy and Bess : Seattle Opera, soloists. Conductor: John DeMain, McCaw Hall, Seattle. 12.8.2011. (BJ)

Director: Chris Alexander
Sets: Michael Scott
Costumes: Christina Giannini
Lighting: Duane Schuler
Hair and makeup: Joyce Degenfelder
Choreography: Kabby Mitchell III

Chorus director: Beth Kirchhoff
Musical preparation: Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, and Jay Rozendaal


Clara: Angel Blue
Mingo: Michael Bragg
Sportin’ Life: Jermaine Smith
Jake: Donovan Singletary
Serena: Mary Elizabeth Williams
Robbins: Michael Austin
Jim: Jimi Ray Malary
Peter: George Scott
Lily: Marlette Buchanan
Maria: Gwendolyn Brown
Porgy: Gordon Hawkins
Crown: Michael Redding
Bess: Lisa Daltirus
Detective: Brian Simmons
Undertaker: Darren Stokes
Annie: Brandi Samuel
Nelson: John Christopher Adams
Strawberry Woman: Ibidunni Ojikutu
Crab Man: Ashley Faatoalia
Coroner: Erik Anstine

For a critic like me who has led a somewhat sheltered life, Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess came as something of a revelation. Though I’ve heard the work several times before in recordings conducted by John DeMain, Lorin Maazel, and Simon Rattle, I had never previously seen it staged. I’m not therefore in a position to compare Chris Alexander’s production with the efforts of other directors, and readers intimately acquainted with Gershwin’s opera may well wish to take my comments with a grain of salt. But on its own terms I thought this an extraordinarily powerful and successful realization of the Hewards’ and the Gershwins’ gritty drama, while musically also the evening convinced me of the stature of a work that is altogether more stylistically coherent and more consistently inspired than the orchestral and other works that have hitherto led me to think of the composer as overrated.

Judging by reports of the production that Diane Paulus is currently preparing for a Broadway reshaping of the opera into a musical – on websites including that of the New York Times, you can read Stephen Sondheim’s passionate denunciation of its manifold projected distortions, including the provision of a happy ending – Alexander’s version must be accounted laudably faithful to the ideas of the work’s creators. Yes, there were some changes. When Porgy set off on his surely doomed journey to New York in search of Bess, there was no goat to keep him company; he had to make do with just his crutch. But the changes in no way undermined the work’s basic message of compassion for the inhabitants of Catfish Row. Sets, costumes, and lighting were all both practical and full of atmosphere, and the characters’ movements around the stage made excellent sense.

Both musically and dramatically, I thought the hurricane scene in the second act somewhat lacking in impact: a decade later, Benjamin Britten, in Peter Grimes, showed a much defter hand in integrating what was going on indoors with the storm background and its frightening incursions when the door was opened. The relative weakness of the scene in Porgy was not the director’s fault but the composer’s – and in any case it was the only flaw that I found in Gershwin’s extremely skillful weaving together of music and drama, and of white and black musical traditions.

John DeMain might really be termed “De Man” when it comes to conducting Porgy and Bess: the 1976 production that he led and recorded with Houston Grand Opera crucially transformed the fortunes of the work. His leadership on this occasion was masterful, drawing vivid playing from the orchestra and splendid singing from the chorus that Beth Kirchhoff had recruited largely from local churches. And the cast, vast as it is in this opera, was without exception excellent.

The Porgy, Gordon Hawkins, has shown himself in recent seasons to be one of the most consistent among Seattle Opera’s regular artists, and this performance, richly sung and touchingly acted, was no exception. Lisa Daltirus was an equally convincing Bess, portraying a character of fatally mixed desires and intentions, miles distant from the glamorous and self-possessed figure she cut back in 2008 as Tosca. Angel Blue and Donovan Singletary made a sympathetic couple as Clara and Jake. Jermaine Smith’s suitably slimy and brilliantly gymnastic Sportin’ Life almost succeeded in making “It ain’t necessarily so” the biggest hit in the show, and Michael Redding, no less odiously, nailed Crown’s combination of sexual magnetism and repellent brutality to a “T.” Along with telling performances from all the supporting singing actors, including George Scott as Peter and Michael Austin as Robbins, it was Mary Elizabeth Williams, as the latter’s wife, Serena, who deservedly garnered one of the evening’s warmest ovations with her song of mourning for her murdered husband.

My apologies go to George Gershwin for having underrated him for so long, and my thanks to all concerned in a production that has made me see the error of my ways.

Bernard Jacobson