Friday, July 26, 2019

Cincinnati Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' underlines its operatic stature with conviction

Opera companies in recent years have broadened their reach across the range of musical theater, so that
In the title roles, Morris Robinson and Talise Tevigne displayed  threatened ardor.
"Sweeney Todd" and "Oklahoma!" have entered their schedules largely without objection.

"Porgy and Bess" was a pioneer in this outreach, and its struggles in the first few decades of its existence are especially revealing of the cultural need to erect boundaries. In the case of this 1935 masterpiece, the effort caused compromises in how it was presented and questions about its legitimacy. Its music came from the pen of a popular songwriter, after all, and its songs held sway over other values in its early history.

Cincinnati Opera has joined the widening company of operatic organizations to respect George Gershwin's score, complete with its complex accompaniments, vocal recitatives and thorough linking of material. (Its track record over a 99-year history includes a 2012 "Porgy and Bess," and browsing for musical theater through  the program book's  production history reveals outings for Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella" and Willson's "The Music Man" decades ago.)

As seen Thursday night in the second of four performances, the 2019 "Porgy and Bess" upholds the work's claims to immortality. The opera has a few scraps of the theatrical equivalent of genre painting, to be sure. There are signs, probably exaggerated by some of the its detractors, that atmospheric shreds and patches like the street cries are distractions. And the work's hits, starting with "Summertime," will always stand out to "Porgy and Bess" audiences not only for their intrinsic merits, but because of their familiarity out of context.

The main set, a Southern ghetto called Catfish Row, looked barely fit for habitation.
This production makes a point of linking all the material, and in particular it highlights the opera's unusual emphasis on community. Stage director Garnett Bruce (with original production credits to Francesca Zambello) knits the large cast together well, down to several cavorting kids. Catfish Row seemed like a place of genuine bonding, though partly a unity enforced by racial segregation and poverty.

I found Peter J. Davison's set more dilapidated than it needed to be; we are supposed to see the set of apartments around a courtyard as being an official building abandoned by the white power structure; it should look worn, but not almost war-torn. His set for Kittiwah Island, the barrier island to which Catfish Row residents escape for a church picnic, was puzzlingly modernist. Design elements often moved to the stage of symbolism. The bright red light behind the set that blazes up when Porgy declares "I'm on my way" and leaves to find Bess seemed to signal conflagration more than hopeful promise. A balance of realistic and symbolic elements was struck in the hurricane sequence, fortunately, with design and stage direction fully complementing the music. The lighting was flecked with lightning flashes amid roiling waves of gray and black.

This show had a number of big solo voices to set against the large chorus, whose role is continual and naturally supports the feeling of community that "Porgy and Bess" evokes so well. Morris Robinson exhibited a well-crafted heroism as Porgy, clearly projecting a spirit capable of overcoming his disability through sheer grit. Hobbling energetically about on a crutch, he was surely challenged to maintain vocal steadiness under such a handicap. The end of the show, which perhaps understandably dispenses with the goat-cart Porgy calls for, has us imagining the hero heading north toward New York with no transportation more reliable or speedy than his crutch. It sort of highlights the metaphorical import of moving toward the Promised Land, and thus reinforces the show's frequent resort to the power of faith.
Jake and Clara are a faithful couple whose doom lies ahead.

Talise Trevigne brought to the role of Bess enough sauciness and an image of amorality that her heroine's susceptibility to bad influences was always evident. The flexibility of her soprano helped underline the volatility of the character; her diction lacked the clarity displayed in the other prominent roles, however.

Reginald Smith Jr. put power and resolve into the role of Jake, the loyal husband and fatefully determined fisherman, while Janai Brugger as Clara represented the force of stability anxious to hold safety and family uppermost. The role has the advantage of introducing the show's biggest hit, "Summertime," and Brugger made the lullaby a moving anthem of survival and triumph.

Another vocal showcase goes to Serena, a role taken nobly by Indra Thomas and favored with the heart-piercing solo "My Man's Gone Now."  She's also the bedrock of the community's vigorous piety. Her rebuke of the picnic's frivolity targets the impiety of Sportin' Life, the dope peddler who leads Bess astray and preaches the famous sermon,"It Ain't Necessarily So."

Limber-limbed and vocally insinuating, Frederick Ballentine Jr., made this comic villain a larger-than-life
Sportin' Life advises the faithful that "it ain't necessarily so."
illustration of the wiles and woes of temptation. He was amusingly resisted by the stalwart cook-shop keeper Maria, whose thunderous rap-style challenge to Sportin' Life was one of the show's comic high points.

Sportin' Life is multi-dimensional in comparison with the other main bad guy, the ruffian stevedore Crown. Nmon Ford made up for a physical stature more ordinary than both Porgy and Jake by the way he carried himself and his vocal and dramatic security. Ford's performance made Crown a worthy nemesis to the honest citizens of Catfish Row, whose vices are summarized principally in the opening scene, when the men's well-staged crap game is counterpointed to Clara's blissful "Summertime."

David Charles Abell conducted, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave luster to the astonishingly varied accompaniment. Abell had singers and orchestra drawing out phrases when appropriate, but the momentum never flagged. The gospel-infused choruses jumped with vivacity and conviction. The saturation of faith and music that the show's creators availed themselves of as the opera took shape in South Carolina consistently rose to the top of the action.  Choristers and principals alike left no doubt that "Porgy and Bess'" operatic stature is well-deserved.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

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