The community at Catfish Row, including the cripple Porgy, sexpot Bess, thug Crown, and drug-dealer Sportin’ Life, spring to life in Washington National Opera’s new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The credit for this stunning success lies with Francesco Zambello, the director for this jazz opera that has been produced badly so many times that few singers are willing to accept a part in it. Zambello has gathered an outstanding cast and an able supporting group of set, costume and lighting designers. Complementing Zambello’s work is British conductor Wayne Marshall who has taken a classical orchestra into a satisfying and rich rendering of Gershwin’s score which features such familiar and beloved songs as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin’.”
The story, based on DuBose Heyward’s Porgy with libretto by Ira Gershwin and Heyward, focuses on Porgy, a crippled beggar who rescues Bess, the sexually alluring girlfriend of the local thug Crown. After Crown kills a Catfish Row man in a dispute over a crap game, Bess is left to fend for herself. Despite the drugs that have been part of Bess’ life with Crown, she refuses an offer from Sportin’ Life who would take her to New York. She turns her life around and becomes Porgy’s woman. Because Porgy also blossoms in this relationship, the community led by Bible-toting Serena opens its heart to Bess. Unfortunately, Bess is not strong and her needs overtake her genuine love for Porgy after he is taken into police custody related to the death of Crown.
Advancing the timeframe from the 1920s to the 1950s, Zambello has taken the original libretto of three acts and nine scenes and compressed it into two acts with a single intermission occurring just after the original Act II, scene 1. Dramatically this places the emphasis on the happiness that Porgy and Bess have found with each other and serves to heighten the passionate performances by soprano Indira Mahajan as Bess and baritone Gordon Hawkins as Porgy in both the Act I duet “Bess, You is My Woman Now” and the Act II duet “I Loves You, Porgy.” Zambello’s division also makes Porgy and Bess more than a love story and creates a richer character for Bess.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes for Bess emphasize her struggle with men and addiction. In her first entrance with Crown, she wears a tightly fitting orange satin dress with chartreuse high heels. After she becomes part of Porgy’s life, she wears a girlish full-skirted off-white dress with earth-toned pumps. She returns to the orange satin dress when she resumes taking Happy Dust and runs off to New York with Sportin’ Life.
Sportin’ Life, attired in a shiny purple suit, black shirt and yellow vest with matching cross-tab tie, echoes Bess’ proclivity for a colorful life more so than the bullying Crown (played convincingly by bass Terry Cook) who Tazewell dresses in somber blacks and browns. Tenor Jermaine Smith is an ideal choice for Sportin’ Life with his thin body and agile dance and acrobatic moves that enhance his delivery of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Soprano Angela Simpson as Serena demonstrates her vocal agility in “Doctor Jesus.” Simpson stands out throughout not only for her singing, but also for her acting. What makes this production so exceptional is that every cast member deserves recognition down to the small parts, such as tenor Don Jones playing the insistent Crab Man rotating his basket of fragrantly cooked she-crab.
Peter Davison’s use of scrims in combination with Mark McCullough’s lighting provides intriguing windows into the lives of those inhabiting Catfish Row. The Row itself, made with sliding doors, broken windows, balconies and steep staircases, is what, according to a playbill interview, Zambello told Davidson should feel like a prison. It’s people of meager means living in cans.
Washington National Opera’s Porgy is serious, well executed adult musical drama that speaks to current issues involving drugs, promiscuity and the both natural (hurricane) and one-on-one violence that leads to death.