Fort Worth — Virgil Thomson, the American composer and critic, once said of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, “Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935.”
In the time surrounding its premiere—around the mid-20th century—the first American folk opera about the lives of African-Americans was met with no small amount of antipathy, namely from the black community. The opera’s plot—the libretto by white writers Dubose and Dorothy Hayward was adapted from their play, and Dubose’s novel; with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother Ira—was viewed by many as a racist portrayal of life for Black Americans, as it relies heavily on the stereotypical tropes of black people living in desperate poverty, gambling, drinking, drugging, and fighting.
If that weren’t enough, in more recent years, opera buffs and performing arts critics have bandied over how the work should be classified—whether it is indeed an opera or a musical, or some living amalgam of both. The ambiguity, for some (especially the lowly patron), adds another layer of crucial and careful interpretation when it comes to scrutinizing any given performance of this American classic.
At the end of the day, though, what matters to most is how effective entertainment is at entertaining, and to some, how well the art moves. Fortunately, the Fort Worth Opera’s production, which opened Friday night at Bass Performance Hall, is solidly entertaining and moving, altogether just ravishing enough to put aside decades of question marks. This opera kicks off the Fort Worth Opera’s 2019 Festival (read more about that here).
Based on Francesca Zambello’s revival, this Porgy and Bess brings an endearing energy to the original opus. The blending of Gershwins’ musical vocabulary of jazz and blues with the classical art form yields a tonal landscape that is, at its core, quintessentially American, shaded with suggestions of the black cultural aesthetic through thoughtful execution by the orchestra. Under Joe Illick’s baton, the players in the pit portray the score with an idyllic charm that, for the most part, balances the singers on stage throughout.
Visually, this production is a feast—not so much a cornucopia of vibrant, delicate dishes, but rather a family-sized platter of your favorite comfort food. Scenic designer Peter J. Davidson conveys the tenement slums of the fictional fishing village of Catfish Row, situated on the sweltering South Carolina coast, with rough, rusty tin slates and steel scaffolding. It looks like a successful combination of an old Spaghetti Western and a prison cell block, all awash in russets and reds. The costuming follows Paul Tazewell’s original designs—modest and weathered period clothing in varying shades of taupe, save for Bess’ distinguishingly provocative bright orange dress.
Stage director Garnett Bruce brings a seamless, natural cohesion to the stage. Having directed another production of Porgy and Bess for the Seattle Opera, his creative direction fittingly covers every plane of the set and shifts nicely in and out of the vibrant group dance numbers, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel and Eboni Adams.
Vocally, this production rests comfortably on solid deliveries from the main characters. Thomas Cannon’s Porgy is commanding, with a stout, open baritone—affectionately deep throughout the range—which serves as a handsome rival against his dramatic nemesis, the sinister stevedore and antagonist Crown, portrayed by Norman Garrett. He is imposing, both visually and vocally, with a tall domineering presence and a brassy baritone to match. His tone complements his that of his rivals, rich on the bottom with a cutting edge in the higher registers.
Indira Mahajan’s Bess is supple, though not entirely convincing until Act II. At times, her soprano is lost under the orchestra, particularly when hovering on the lower end, but her high notes shimmer with a silvery gloss, and there are much more of them later in the show. She delivers a wrenching interpretation of “I Loves You, Porgy,” one of the show’s many iconic arias, with a delicate finesse—challenging the more show-stopping approaches that other portrayals of Bess have taken in the past.
This production effectively moves through many of these well-known arias in the same fashion. Rather than a collection of hard-hitting singles, it manages to incorporate everything together in one moving display. And here in, for me, lies the vocal standout—the ensemble, prepared with expert care and attention by Chorus Master Alfrelynn Roberts. The cast of secondary leads, cameos, and villagers supply the show with refreshing verve and believable momentum. Karen Slack’s soulfully lush soprano brings Serena to the fore of every moment she is in, with a sweet, lilting high that made “My Man’s Gone Now” one of the most powerful arias of the evening. Serena’s frequent play off the town’s other matriarch—the boisterously deep Maria, played by contralto Gwendolyn Brown—yields equal parts comedy and tragedy.
Jermaine Smith’s rounded tenor is appropriately slick as Sportin’ Life, the show’s “happy dust” peddling antihero. His sardonic wit and evocative arias, like “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Leavin’ Soon for New York” teeter on caricature, but balance the drama with a comedic edge.
Ultimately, while there’s a lot that can be said about the validity of this opera in modern discourse, it cannot be denied that it is truly a masterful work of art when observed objectively for its creative merits. But, given the fact that much of the subject matter is indeed relevant today—drug abuse and addiction (the opioid crisis), sexual abuse and harassment (#MeToo), and racial discrimination (Black Lives Matter)—it’s hard to say that it doesn’t belong. Perhaps it is exactly what some of us need. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable about the fact that Gershwins’ work exploits some of the longest standing stereotypes of the black community. However, it is in that uncomfortable space that any necessary conversation can actually begin. The Fort Worth Opera’s vehicle for catalysis is a gorgeous, solid presentation of a well-known American classic.