It was hot in Richmond on Sunday, but down on Catfish Row in the Virginia Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess, they were more concerned with things like love, murder, and deceit.
Porgy and Bess is a 20th century classic that bridges musical theater and opera, and Western Europe and African American musical devices. The work by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward has been, since its 1935 premiere, the source of much controversy, a discussion that seems less important in modern global and boundary-less times. The question of “Is this really an opera?” is not only moot but also outdated, and Virginia Opera’s closing performance at the Carpenter Theatre on Sunday afternoon made it easy to enjoy it for what it is.
In the program’s Director’s Notes, Greg Ganakas explains that he asked the cast to bring their own life experiences to the story. It came out in the passion between Porgy and Bess, Clara’s hysteria when she spots her husband’s unmanned boat after the hurricane, and even the dope dealer Sportin’ Life’s need to be needed. This story, based on Heyward’s novel Porgy, can’t be told with a flat and un-emotive cast. Luckily, this one was neither.
Michael Redding as Porgy and Kearstin Piper Brown as Bess are the two obvious stars. Back from his Virginia Opera role earlier this season of La Bohème’s charming Schaunard, Redding plays the crippled beggar phenomenally. His baritone voice was huge and rich in arias like “I got plenty o’ nuttin” about his carefree life, singing “I got my gal, got my Lord, got my song.”
Brown is comfortable with the freedoms of gospel and jazz that the role of Bess requires and that a classical opera role would not necessitate. In her duet with Redding, “Bess, you is my woman now,” her soulfulness particularly pours out while she gets lost in her lover’s arms.
But Porgy is not the only man in the wild girl’s life (the first time we see her, she’s dressed in a bright red dress and takes money out of her garter to pay for drugs). She attracts bad men like Sportin’ Life and Crown, and repeatedly gets manipulated by both. Timothy Robert Blevins as the authoritative and abusive Crown is magnificent. As villainous as his role is, his voice is easy to love and sets him apart as the best supporting cast member.
Sportin’ Life — modeled by Gershwin after the eccentric 1930s jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway — was played by Lawrence Craig, who was entertaining and animated in the role. At this particular performance, he struggled at the top of his range, his voice cracking multiple times. “It ain’t necessarily so,” however, was a hit. His flawless and colorful performance was great enough to forgive his earlier faults.
When Crown kills fellow Catfish Row man Robbins over a craps game in the very first scene, it makes a widow out of Serena, played by the lovely Aundi Marie Moore. While it’s a sad moment, it allowed Moore to exude the blues in “My man’s gone now.” When Bess falls ill after Crown makes her miss the boat to leave Kittiwah Island and then sexually assaults her in the woods (it all comes back to Crown being one bad man), Moore sings a beautiful prayer to “Doctor Jesus” over a soft and swaying orchestra.
The production was truly a multimedia spectacle, incorporating simple but stunning set and scenery with bold colored backdrops. Every piece of the set, including the multi-leveled structures and independent staircase, was on wheels and moved around by cast members, creating different sets with different configurations and moving them in synchronized ways to symbolize transitions.
Dance — either traditional to the period or more modern through expressive and symbolic motion — was an important element. Dancers April Nixon and Darius Crenshaw played a large role in setting the tone for scenes, whether it was preparing for a hurricane or getting high from Sportin’ Life’s “happy dust.”
Porgy and Bess was a monumental achievement for African Americans as well as for opera and musical theater. Through the story provided to them by the Gershwins and Heyward and through their own experiences brought to the stage, the cast of the Virginia Opera celebrated it well.