George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a period piece that provides a glimpse of life on Catfish Row — a former Charlestown mansion converted to a black tenement house — and a goldmine of early-twentieth-century music that remains as lyric and operatic as ever.
Atlanta Opera presented Porgy and Bess in 2005. On February 26, the company again showcased its enviable Porgy opera chorus, directed by Walter Huff, which performed Gershwin’s opera at the Opéra Comique and elsewhere in Europe during the summer of 2008. Truly the omnipresent chorus was spontaneous in its outpouring of emotion and jubilant in all ways vocal and beyond — constantly moving, clapping, dancing and stomping. Kudos to their talented choreographer, Linda James-Johnson!
This Atlanta production also incorporated new technology— developed by the University of Kentucky Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, along with Fort Knox — which was originally intended for use in military training. Essentially, fifty-four high-definition projectors cast images of Charleston row houses and hurricane video from behind two massive screens throughout the opera, serving as a backdrop to a two-tiered, rickety wooden structure that the singers inhabited.
Boston Pops and BBC conductor Keith Lockhart headlined the evening, harnessing the best sound the Atlanta Opera Orchestra has achieved in the past five years, but unfortunately also overpowering a handful of solo lines early on. Balance was established soon after Jake’s first song, and Lockhart’s orchestral pacing was spot-on. The opera was presented almost in its entirety and ran about three hours in total. Insignificant cuts that did not disrupt the plot were made, including Mr. Archdale’s role, Porgy’s buzzard song in Act II, scene 1 and some incidental music following “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Michael Redding was a youthful Porgy who entered on a worn cart, sometimes struggled on crutches, but mostly slid around on his knees from place to place. Redding’s resonant baritone was exciting; his most passionate singing was done in Porgy’s signature piece, “I got plenty o’ nuttin.” Radiant soprano Laquita Mitchell was Redding’s Bess.
Bess’s flawed spirit overshadowed her physical beauty in Mitchell’s portrayal, most clearly delineated during the haunting “What you want wid Bess? / She’s getting’ ole now,” in which Gershwin’s sensual music and Mitchell’s provocative timbre blatantly contradicted the text.
Porgy and Bess is laced with conflict. Director Larry Marshall conveyed all of this with clarity, but admittedly he had a fabulous cast to guide. Eric Greene played a Crown who was hulking both in voice and in stature, a powerful foil to Porgy’s goodness and crippled body. Tart-voiced tenor Chauncey Packer was a smooth Sportin’ Life, forever tempting the God-fearing community to doubt and seducing Bess with his supply of happy dust. Packer danced his way through the role, utterly at ease with the jazz embelliments that he employed.
The supporting cast was strong but showcased a range of vocal styles, some more operatic than others. NaGuanda Nobles’s Clara was everything one could hope for in her opening of the opera, singing “Summertime” with glittering tone and well-executed dynamic variation. Baritone Justin Lee Miller was a robust Jake. Aundi Marie Moore gave an uneven performance of Serena; she excelled in recitative and in her improvisatory prayer for Bess but was vocally overwrought in “My man’s gone now.”
The singers of cameo roles were not given recognition in the program, but they deserve mention, especially the delightful Strawberry Woman, Peter the honey man and the comical Crab Man.