You know the songs. You’ve heard the story. But nothing will prepare you for the astounding power of this full operatic production of Gershwin’s modern American masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. Consider it a front-end alignment for the soul.
Kudos first to director Francesca Zambello and then conductor Wayne Marshall for engineering a perfect storm. Zambello brilliantly blends a prodigiously talented ensemble cast with a chorus and 29 supernumeraries (wonderfully acted by Washingtonians of all ages) into one of the tightest, most coherent dramatic units ever to grace the Washington National Opera stage. This is group show choreography and stagecraft at its very best. Add Marshall’s bold command of a magnificent score and every urgent moment, every ring of tragedy, every quiet harbor comes with gorgeous and unearthly clarity.
Each cast member brings something unique to the trials and tribulations of the ill-fated coastal ghetto of Catfish Row. Jermaine Smith is both charming and highly sinister with ”Sportin’ Life.” Samantha McElhaney has a brief but utterly enchanting moment with ”Strawberries.” And Laquita Mitchell delivers ”Summertime” with a heartbreakingly soft touch.
Easy livin\': Mahajan and Smith
(Photo by Karin Cooper )
Still, special mention must go to the remarkable soprano Angela Simpson who sings Serena, a woman widowed by an act of senseless violence. Could a voice be any richer or more velvety? Could her strength and range be any more spectacular? Simpson’s rendition of ”My Man’s Gone Now” is positively mind-blowing, yet she remains a marvelously understated actor, capable of showing emotion just in the way she holds herself. When will we see more of her?
Indira Mahajan as Bess, a woman lost in the struggle to find herself, is a lighter fine-toned soprano and a highly compelling stage presence. This is a physically demanding performance and Mahajan handles it with amazing strength and grace; the scene in which she struggles bodily and emotionally with her nemesis Crown is beautifully portrayed. Still, Mahajan is a subtle actor and we could use a few more clues as to just how close to the edge this tortured soul really is. Her sudden return to the ”happy dust” in the last act seems slightly disjointed.
Credit must also go to Terry Cook, who, as Crown, gives Bess a tremendously complex villain with whom to battle. He creates a character who is terrifying and yet vital in voice and style, and we can see why Bess falls repeatedly under his sway. Cook is another tremendous actor — the scene in which Crown overcomes Bess physically and emotionally is brilliant as he evokes the mood of violence and violation without stepping into the literal. This man is an all-around talent: a glorious baritone, actor and mover.
And then there is baritone Gordon Hawkins as Porgy, the iconic loser touched by happiness just long enough to be forever changed. Hawkins brings stoicism to this role, an attitude of sheer endurance that keeps the maudlin well at bay, and yet he manages to exude melancholy and longing even in his happiest moments. Interestingly, Hawkins tends to sing with more expression than power at times. Thus, though he doesn’t always claim the music, he always owns the stage.
What makes Porgy and Bess a stellar production is the sense that it is employee-owned. Every member of the cast — whether star singer, actor or walk-on — wants to tell the story. The result is a drama of such freshness and magical intensity that every dreadful clichÃ©, knock-off and caricature spawned by circulation of this tale through the decades will fall away, never to haunt you again. This, at last, is the real deal. But like all powerful vehicles it comes with a price: Don’t leave home without your handkerchief.
There will be a free big-screen simulcast of Porgy and Bess on the Mall, Sunday, Nov. 6. You can also hear it live on NPR, Saturday, Nov. 12.