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.
Reginald Smith Jr. performs as Jake and Musa Ngqungwana performs as Porgy in the Atlanta Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess.” Ngqungwana and Morris Robinson alternate as Porgy in different performances of the opera during its run at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through March 15. (Rafterman Photography)
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.
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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.
Atlanta Opera’s Porgy and Bess
7:30 p.m Mar. 10; 8 p.m. Mar. 13; 3 p.m. Mar. 15. $55-$170.
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.