In the July Issue of Opera News Online: Review of Atlanta Opera’s Porgy and Bess

Porgy and BessON MARCH 7, Atlanta Opera offered the local premiere of Francesca Zambello’s staging of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, first seen at The Glimmerglass Festival in 2017. The set, a corroded, two-tiered tenement house on Catfish Row was a stark contrast to the most recent Atlanta production, staged by Larry Marshall in 2011, which utilized a multitude of high-definition projectors in order to conjure a sense of place. Garnett Bruce, Zambello’s assistant at Glimmerglass, made his Atlanta Opera debut directing an exceptional cast, headed by bass Morris Robinson as Porgy.

Although deemed sociologically false and culturally degrading by some, Porgy and Bess, conceived as a Broadway musical in 1935 has remained in the repertory of opera houses in the U.S. since its rebirth at Houston Grand Opera in 1976. Baritone Donnie Rae Albert and soprano Clamma Dale sang the title roles for HGO’s staging by Jack O’Brien, which moved to Broadway and won a Grammy for its cast album. Robinson, an Atlanta native and a singer of international stature, deliberately avoided the role of Porgy on the advice of colleagues since beginning his career twenty years ago. However, an offer from the Teatro alla Scala in 2017 spurred him to reconsider and he has since performed the iconic role of Porgy in both Milan and Cincinnati after studying it with Donnie Rae Albert.

Robinson’s voice is weighty and much darker than Albert’s, which made numbers like “I got plenty of nuttin” and the “Buzzard Song” a distinctive aural experience altogether. Robinson’s characterization of Porgy matched his vocal timbre. His Porgy was stern, rather than loveable, and he made Porgy’s handicap prominent, with an effortful gait that caused the audience to wince with each step.

Conductor David Charles Abell led the Atlanta Orchestra, keeping tempos lively. Despite the steady stream of hit tunes, Porgy and Bess can sometimes feel just a little too long. Abell’s pacing and clear direction provided the nuance necessary to avert any sense of sluggishness.

Talise Trevigne stepped in to sing the role of Bess at the eleventh hour when soprano Kristin Lewis withdrew from the production. Trevigne, who has previously sung Bess at Glimmerglass and in Cincinnati, dazzled the audience with her girl-next-door smile and opulent singing. Her buoyant, lyric sound was a terrific complement to Robinson’s gravity.

Jaqueline Echols set the bar high with her rendition of “Summertime.” Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. sang generously as Jake, giving his part a free and easy feel. Donovan Singletary brought super-charged fury and bristling vocalism to his vicious Crown. Serena was sung by Indra Thomas, a local favorite who gave a passionate delivery of “My man’s gone now.”

The people of Catfish Row—brought to life by the joyous Atlanta Opera Chorus—bustled and boogied their way through the show. Expertly choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel and Eboni Adams, the chorus unfortunately lacked the vocal precision and spectral balance in Porgy that had been achieved in previous Atlanta Opera productions under the direction of chorus master Walter Huff.

Weaving his way in and out of this tight-knit, impoverished community was the electric Jermaine Smith as a snarky-sounding Sportin’ Life. He set the gold-standard with his fancy footwork and expert text delivery, successfully luring Bess away from the “decent life” with Porgy to which she aspired. —Stephanie Adrian

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