“Porgy and Bess” is, of course, a story about the love between Porgy and Bess, but in the Atlanta Opera’s splendid and captivating new production of the classic, it is also the story of a community. Strong leads evoke the central love triangle exactly as it should be: with passion and vigor that are larger than life. But that tragic romantic story here unfolds against an especially vivid and compelling backdrop. The production hits home as a timely story about a vulnerable but resilient community that bonds together through difficult times with humor, spirituality and strength.
Morris Robinson and Musa Ngqungwana alternate in performances as Porgy throughout the run at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (Atlanta resident Robinson performs the role through March 10, and Ngqungwana takes on the role March 13 and Mach 15). Robinson, who performed the role on opening night, created a Porgy who is seemingly a figure out of ancient epic tragedy: a doomed giant of a man, greatly wounded, with a giant limp, but also enormous inner strength. We absolutely believe the same Porgy who cheerfully sings “I got plenty of nothin’” in Act I could go on to murder Crown in Act II, where other performers can make Porgy seem simple, childlike or pathetic, Robinson always conveys him as a richly complicated man.
Soprano Talise Trevigne joined the cast as Bess just a few days before opening night due to a late withdrawal by the scheduled performer Kristin Lewis. Her Bess is fittingly voluptuous and brazenly manipulative, but also touchingly vulnerable. Early songs sounded understandably a little on the tentative side, but her lovely voice later captivated in beautiful solos and in duets with Robinson’s rich bass. Her relationship with Crown (Donovan Singletary) has a tortured, almost shocking fleshiness here thanks to Singletary’s strong and vital presence. If Bess shelters with Porgy for his offered repose and stasis, we come to understand, it’s because Crown has long satisfied an opposing need in her.
But “Porgy” is also the story of a community, and performers in peripheral roles and the Atlanta Opera chorus brilliantly bring this aspect of the opera to the fore, conveying the intricate lives and travails of the residents of Catfish Row. Jermaine Smith makes an appealingly cocky and often rather sinister (think: part joker, part Joker) Sportin’ Life. The character clowns with every movement, but clearly the stance originates from a cynical vision of life and mortality. Bess’ final decision to run off with him may come across as rather mysterious, but we understand his motivations perfectly. Another standout is Indra Thomas as Serena. The character weaves in and out of the story throughout the opera, but her gospel-inflected, stunningly spooky performance of “Oh, Doctor Jesus” over Bess’ sick bed in Act II is undoubtedly one of this production’s most compelling highlights.
Writer James Baldwin, who overall praised “Porgy and Bess” as “vivid, good-natured and sometimes moving,” also incisively criticized the work for being a white fantasy about black life. Even if seen having shortcomings along those lines, “Porgy and Bess” can also clearly take shape as a moving and relevant story of a community, one that unites in the face of intrusive police violence, or reels from the devastating effects of a hurricane, one that faces exploitation, addiction and abuse. This is hardly a nostalgic, easy-going or backward-looking fantasy, but instead issues that seem ripped from today’s headlines.
On that note, designer Peter Davison’s sets wisely avoid any sort of sentimentality, quaintness or nostalgia, often a danger for designers when creating the visual world of Catfish Row. If there’s any warmth to this Catfish Row, all fortresslike steel doors and rusted corrugated tin, it must be created by human interaction in its interstitial spaces. It’s a place that, like a prison, seems impervious, permanent and inescapable but at the same time touchingly exposed and at risk: the hurricane of Act II literally brings pieces of it to the ground.
But in the new vision, there are also missed opportunities. I adored Davison’s notion for the island of Kittiwah, where the picnic scene at the end of Act I takes place. Instead of a wild jungled Southern barrier island, he creates a decaying, abandoned Coney Island-like amusement park. It’s a compelling spin that brings the urban and contemporary aspects of the story to life. But references in the libretto to thickets and jungles and rattlesnakes on Kittiwah become puzzling, and moreover if the amusement park contains decaying rides and busted neon signs from long ago, we begin to wonder: when, and where, is the story taking place? The costumes still evoke the 1930s, but there’s a timeless and universal aspect to the sets: visually, we might be in South Africa, or Los Angeles, or Bangladesh, or any number of places. There’s actually no problem per se with this approach, but somehow it doesn’t seem a perfect fit for a production in Atlanta, the capital of the South. One longs for a feeling of recognition and homecoming; the story is set in nearby Charleston, and that feeling of place, of the Southernness of the tale, gets lost in this retelling.
Nonetheless, this compelling recreation of the familiar story is otherwise wonderfully close to home, and a straightforward, moving but inventive “Porgy and Bess” continues to show Atlanta Opera’s Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun’s grand vision for a vital, international opera company in Atlanta.
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