Seattle Opera's restrained staging of Gershwin's rousing 'Porgy'

Seattle's version admirably digs beneath the surface of this elusive classic of American identity. It avoids sentimentalizing Porgy into a saint and brings more human focus to characters who can often become caricatures. But some pivotal moments are under-emphasized.

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Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy in the "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess."

Seattle's version admirably digs beneath the surface of this elusive classic of American identity. It avoids sentimentalizing Porgy into a saint and brings more human focus to characters who can often become caricatures. But some pivotal moments are under-emphasized.

Porgy and Bess, the great American opera everyone thinks they already know, has endured an odd fate of simultaneous overexposure and neglect.

Even though George Gershwin’s score soon became embedded in popular culture via countless arrangements of individual tunes, it took four decades for his creation to be presented in something like its full glory for the first time by an American opera company. That landmark production of 1976, spearheaded by Houston Grand Opera, launched a new wave of reappraisals, and Porgy and Bess finally made it to the Met stage in 1985 — half a century after it had first been unveiled in a Broadway theater. (The show’s fortunes in Europe involve yet another series of intriguing twists in the legacy of Porgy's reception and influence.)

Seattle Opera’s new production, the season opener, is in fact the first home-grown staging by the local company; previously it had presented Porgy and Bess twice simply by hosting the touring version from Houston. And for all the familiarity of Gershwin’s hit numbers, any serious attempt to stage the opera is forced to grapple with challenges that leave little room for complacent predictability.

In addition to its unique demands — including the requirement that the entire cast consist of African-American performers (apart from the brief spoken roles played by whites) — Gershwin clearly conceived the work on a grand-operatic scale. It calls for close to two dozen distinct characters, a prominent chorus, a large orchestra, choreography — and the vision to synthesize all this into a compellingly unified performance. Seattle Opera has devoted impressive resources to digging beneath the surface, but flaws emerge in some key aspects of its production. Still, as a whole, it serves as a rousing testament to the full humanity of Gershwin’s creation.

The production also makes a plausible case that Porgy and Bess deserves to be judged as a full-fledged operatic achievement along the lines of Verdi or Puccini. That claim, of course, remains contentious. Two issues always seem to thread their way into any discussion of this work. One is the question as to whether Gershwin was merely a gifted tunesmith who essentially strung a series of popular miniatures together in an overextended form. The other has to do with a white composer and a team of white writers attempting to represent African-American experience: whether the very premise behind the work is offensive, despite good intentions.

Indeed, Seattle Opera’s season book includes a fascinating essay in which historian Roger van Oosten recounts a local example of offense being taken. During the New Deal (and just a year after the opera’s premiere), members of Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company  rebelled against being cast in a planned local staging of Porgy — the play, that is, that Dubose Heyward and his wife Dorothy had adapted from his hit novel of 1925, which in turn served as the basis for the opera libretto. The performers, writes van Oosten, objected and forced the play to be withdrawn because “they felt the story reinforced racial stereotypes.”

For Gershwin, though, the African-American milieu had long provided an inspiring source — the essential ingredient needed for Americans to re-energize and reimagine forms borrowed from Europe. His early operatic experiment Blue Monday (a one-act “jazz opera” predating "Rhapsody in Blue" that remains an obscure footnote) already shows “how deeply rooted was Gershwin’s intuition that an African-American subject should one day be the subject of an opera,” writes John Dizikes in his cultural history, American Opera.

Dubose’s story offered the ideal mix he was looking for to frame the new kind of American opera he envisioned inaugurating: “100 percent dramatic intensity in addition to humor,” as Gershwin put it. And in Porgy, he continued, “this humor is natural humor — not ‘gags’ superimposed upon the story but humor flowing from the story itself.”

That sense of abundance and organic connection is a key to the overpowering vitality he was able to infuse into his music for Porgy and Bess. Where the play, once considered progressive, is hopelessly dated by its stereotypes (and the same might be said of any number of plots in the standard rep), Gershwin’s opera endows these characters with a universal, timeless resonance that transcends formulas.

It echoes with varying degrees of effectiveness through Seattle Opera’s production. As the signature melody of “Summertime” emerges in the opening scene, against a scrim of hazy harmonies, Clara’s solo lullaby becomes grafted onto the chorus: a musical metaphor for the tidal tug-and-pull of the community that is ever present in the opera.

Representing that community in visual terms are Michael Scott’s two-level set and Christina Giannini’s costumes on loan from New York Harlem Theatre and having circulated widely in recent years in productions of Porgy abroad. The design elements depict a Catfish Row of subdued palettes, its atmosphere almost genteel. You don’t get a sense of the hopelessness of living in close quarters amid desperate, squalid poverty.

This restrained look includes some unexpected choices as well: Instead of the usual riot of bright colors, the picnic excursion to Kittiwah Island introduces a surreal fairy-tale setting of monochromatic deep greens that easily turn menacing; this is where Crown lurks, waiting for Bess.

The scene of communal mourning for Serena’s murdered husband becomes an extended requiem of darkly gothic intensity, later echoed by the claustrophobic gathering that takes shelter from the hurricane. It climaxes in one of the evening’s most memorable vocal performances: the drawn-out, keening pathos of Mary Elizabeth Williams’s “My Man’s Gone Now.” But moodily effective as it was here, I found Duane Schuler’s lighting increasingly baffling: whole scenes remain so dimly lit that important details and reactions get submerged and are impossible to decipher.

Director Chris Alexander, a Seattle Opera favorite gifted with a keen theatrical wit, undertakes his first staging of Porgy and Bess with mixed results. Overall, his approach here reinforces the visual concept of less-is-more understatement. His Porgy, the apparent victim of a stevedore accident, seems merely inconvenienced as he hobbles on a crutch (replacing the troublesome goat-cart), while both he and Bess are no naïve young lovers but have clearly been through plenty of hard knocks before they hook up.

The restraint from exaggeration is welcome, bringing a more human focus to characters who can easily become caricatures. There’s no sentimentalizing of Porgy as a saint (he clearly relishes murdering Crown), and Bess doesn’t come off as a frantically over-the-top addict. But pivotal moments are under-emphasized, if not altogether missing, such as the silent interactions between Porgy and Bess in the first scene. Alexander is an experienced director of Shakespeare, so it’s all the more surprising that the complex crowd scenes seldom catch fire, notwithstanding Kabby Mitchell’s vivid choreography and an often rapid pacing. Catfish Row tends to remain a static — occasionally even bland — background for the individual tragedies to play out against.

Gordon Hawkins, fresh after his grittily powerful incarnation of Alberich in San Francisco Opera’s new Ring, has lived with the role of Porgy through the length of his career to date. What he’s come up with for Seattle is an involving mix of bitter detachment and seasoned optimism: a Porgy who struggles with emotional paralysis instead of physical deformity. His transforming moment comes not in “Bess, You Is My Woman” (beautifully though he sings it) but in the finale’s “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way,” as he clings desperately to a last shard of hope.

I wish the chemistry between the lovers was more engaging, but Lisa Daltirus uses her signature blend of lirico refinement and spinto heft to underline the ambiguities of Bess’s character. She adds a palpable sense of self-loathing for the weakness that she shows to the scene of her (re)seduction by Crown. Michael Redding spices the latter’s menacing, brutish presence with the needed note of arrogantly sexy charm. As the dope peddler Sportin’ Life, Jermaine Smith hams it up, a glibly Mephistophelian virtuoso of sleaze who overdoes the character’s unctuousness.

The production is filled with memorable contributions from the supporting cast. As Clara, Angel Blue neatly differentiates her two renditions of “Summertime,” giving the second (during the hurricane) an attitude of tremulous denial. With her attitude, comic timing, and imposing alto, Gwendolyn Brown nearly steals the show as Maria, Catfish Row’s matriarchal cook. The specially assembled chorus, expertly prepared by Beth Kirchhoff, sings with zestful feeling.

The most convincing argument for Gershwin as a serious operatic contender comes from the pit. Conductor John DeMain, who helmed the famous Houston Grand Opera production in 1976, effortlessly digs into the score’s intricate web of motifs and textures and inspires consistently riveting playing from the orchestra.

Throughout the show they accomplish what sometimes fails to happen visually and dramatically, drawing connections and emotional resonances that remain obscure or undeveloped onstage. In DeMain’s account, it becomes clear that Gershwin carefully crafted a unified masterpiece rather than the eclectic pastiche of American vernacular he is still lazily charged with by some critics. Porgy, astonishingly, was his first full-scale attempt at opera.

If you go: Seattle Opera’s production of Porgy and Bessruns through August 20 at McCaw Hall,  321 Mercer St., 206 684-7200.


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