GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898 – 1937): Porgy and Bess – Thomas Cannon (Porgy), Rhiannon Giddens (Bess), Angela Renée Simpson (Serena), Michael Preacely (Crown), Robert Anthony Mack (Sportin’ Life), Indira Mahajan (Clara), Sidney Outlaw (Jake), George Shirley (Peter), Elvira O. Green (Maria), Chauncey Packer (Robbins, Crab man), Paisley Alexandra Williams (Strawberry woman), Maurio Hines (Nelson), Ernest Jackson (Mingo), Monique McLeod (Annie), Alicia Helm McCorvey (Lily), Reginald Powell (Jim), Richard L. Hodges (Undertaker, Lawyer Frazier), Donald Hartmann (Detective), Robert Wells (Coroner), Douglas Grimm (Policeman), Collin McCrea (Policeman), A. Robinson Hassell (Mr. Archdale), Levi Ponder (Scipio); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Awadagin Pratt, conductor [David Holley, Producer; Everett McCorvey, Stage Director; John Farrell, Set Designer; Ashley Lindsey, Choreographer; Jeff Neubauer, Technical Director and Lighting Designer; Jennifer Zumpf-Valosen, Costume Designer; Trent Pcenicni, Wig and Makeup Designer; Greensboro Opera; Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 21 January 2022]
When Todd Duncan and Anne Brown created the title rôles in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on the stage of Boston’s Colonial Theatre on 30 September 1935, the cultural landscape of American musical theater was lastingly—and controversially—expanded to include communities and stories beyond the genre’s conventional parameters. Drawing his subject from DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, adapted for the Broadway stage by Heyward and his wife Dorothy in 1927, Ira Gershwin collaborated with the authors to provide his brother with a libretto that, though unquestionably perpetuating derogatory stereotypes, offered the composer opportunities to celebrate the nobility of a segment of the nation’s population that few theatergoers had experienced in 1935.
Characterizing Porgy and Bess as an ‘American opera,’ Gershwin composed with his heart in the opera house and his mind on the Great White Way, knowing that a piece with Black protagonists portrayed by Black singers was unlikely to be accepted by America’s opera houses. As the centennial of the opera’s première approaches, stagings like Greensboro Opera’s long-anticipated production affirm that Porgy and Bess belongs in opera houses, alongside the masterworks of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Richard Strauss.
Produced by the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley, this staging of Porgy and Bess began Greensboro Opera’s association with Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, this partnership was the source of the evening’s sole disappointment. Designed with the principal aim of being Greensboro’s new home for touring productions of Broadway musicals, Tanger Center proved to be an imperfect venue for opera. Without the body microphones and sound mixing now common in musical theater, too much of the sound emanating from the stage was muddled by the auditorium’s dull acoustic. Large voices made no greater impact than their more modest counterparts, and both diction and intonation were sometimes difficult to assess. The singers adapted their performances to the room, however, and the production took advantage of Tanger Center’s spatial and technological capabilities, magnificently transforming the expansive stage into Catfish Row.
The extended delays imposed upon this production by the COVID-19 pandemic clearly intensified Greensboro Opera’s focus on realizing the full dramatic power of Porgy and Bess. Imaginatively but sensibly illuminated by Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs and technical direction, both John Farrell’s atmospheric set designs, beautifully evoking South Carolina’s Low Country by framing the tableaux with suggestions of hanging mosses and a view of the Morris Island Lighthouse, and Jennifer Zumpf-Valosen’s vibrant costumes complemented the singers’ characterizations of the residents of—and the intruders into—Catfish Row. Trent Pcenicni’s wig and makeup designs were wholly credible for the opera’s setting, glorifying the natural beauty of Catfish Row’s inhabitants.
Dale Girard’s fight choreography yielded altercations of a level of realism rarely encountered in opera, and Ashley Lindsey’s choreography enlivened every scene, particularly those in which Sportin’ Life appeared. Stage director Everett McCorvey brought a singer’s insights and experience to his task, achieving compelling dramatic verisimilitude whilst safeguarding musical integrity. Throughout the performance, no element of the staging impeded the act and art of singing, markedly enhancing the credibility of these characters whose struggles play out in song.
Débuting as a conductor of opera, acclaimed pianist Awadagin Pratt demonstrated deft handling of the jazz rhythms that frolic in Gershwin’s music. The prominent echoes of Tin Pan Alley notwithstanding, the listener is frequently reminded that Porgy and Bess is a contemporary of Berg’s Lulu, Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae and Die schweigsame Frau, Mascagni’s Nerone, and Enescu’s Œdipe. Pratt’s pacing of the performance accentuated the score’s modernity, emphasizing the piquancy of the harmonies. The prevailing aptness of the balances between stage and orchestra pit was indisputably more to Pratt’s credit than to that of the theater’s aural profile.
Occasionally, the conductor’s assured management of the musical forces was compromised by moments of imprecision in large ensembles, but the adroitness with which he restored equilibrium was indicative of his preparedness. Under Pratt’s baton, Greensboro Opera Orchestra’s musicians played superbly, their mastery of Gershwin’s score producing sounds that were raucous or radiant as each phrase required. Conductor and orchestra collaborated to support the singers and extol Gershwin’s genius.
The choristers assembled under the direction of James Bumgardner sang powerfully from their first utterance in Act One. [In this production, Gershwin’s three acts were arranged into two acts, with the interval following the scene in which Crown accosts Bess on Kittiwah Island.] The choral set pieces were performed with unstinting energy. The fight scene in Act One bristled with agitation and alarm, the chorus’s horrified reaction to Crown’s violence creating an aura of disquiet in which the lament for the slain Robbins, ‘Oh, we’re leavin’ for the Promise’ Lan’,’ was genuinely cathartic. The choral responses to Sportin‘ Life‘s ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ were wonderfully animated. The choristers‘ singing of the prayer for divine protection from the hurricane and the opera’s final ensemble revealed these scenes to be peers of the choral writing in Die Zauberflöte and Fidelio.
Ain’t no misbehavin’: tenor Robert Anthony Mack as Sportin’ Life (left) and mezzo-soprano Elvira O. Green as Maria (right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jarmoz Photography]
The success of a performance of Porgy and Bess relies greatly upon the cast’s creation of a believable society in which the characters play distinct parts. In Greensboro Opera’s production, the west-of-East-Bay-Street figures who encroach upon Catfish Row’s delicate order seemed to emerge from a foreign realm, their lack of understanding of their neighbors’ community contrasting with the unspoken camaraderie that united the occupants of Catfish Row. Assigning all but one of the rôles of the interloping Charlestonians—parts that are sometimes embarrassingly caricatured—to singers rather than actors lent their lines uncommonly effective timing. The Honorable A. Robinson Hassell’s Mr. Archdale relayed his good tidings benevolently, and young artists Douglas Grimm and Collin McCrae crassly imparted the policemen’s low regard for their countrymen of color. Robert Wells was an earnest but anxious coroner whose discomfort in Catfish Row was palpable. The exasperation of Donald Hartmann bemused, brutal detective erupted into song when, rather than speaking, he joined his witnesses in singing their final ‘Three days and nights’ when questioning them about Crown’s untimely demise.
Amongst the many accomplishments of this production of Porgy and , none was more laudable than the casting of principal and secondary rôles. The theatrical instincts with which Gershwin gave each of the male citizens of Catfish Row a singular function in the drama prefigures Britten’s meticulous depictions of the sailors aboard the HMS Indomitable in Billy Budd. Bass-baritone Reginald Powell declared Jim’s disenfranchisement with toiling in the cotton fields potently and sang all of his music assertively. The gleaming tenor voices of Ernest Jackson and Maurio Hines lent Mingo’s and Nelson’s lines individuality, their tones reverberating in the house excitingly, and Levi Ponder was a spirited Scipio. Baritone Richard L. Hodges was as magisterial as the Undertaker as he was wily as Lawyer Frazier, the voice imposingly handsome.
The cast’s ladies uniformly rivaled the gentlemen’s vocal and theatrical prowess. Sopranos Monique McLeod and Alicia Helm McCorvey voiced Gershwin’s music for Annie and Lily fetchingly, their timbres distinguishable but blending gorgeously in ensembles and their upper registers easily overcoming the theater’s sonic difficulties. Mezzo-soprano Paisley Alexandra Williams touted the Strawberry woman’s merchandise bewitchingly, her tones glistening like rays of aural sunlight.
Fishing for trouble: baritone Sidney Outlaw as Jake in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]
As vital to the advancement of diversity in opera as performances of works like Porgy and Bess is the work of artists of color, and Greensboro Opera’s staging of Porgy and Bess was immeasurably enriched by the participation of a pair of operatic trailblazers. When he substituted for an indisposed colleague to make his Metropolitan Opera début as Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte on 24 October 1961, George Shirley inaugurated a fruitful association with that company. Having been the first Black singer to win the MET’s National Council Auditions, he became the first Black tenor to interpret leading rôles at the MET.
As the honey man Peter in Greensboro Opera’s Porgy and Bess, Shirley’s singing was a testament to the importance of technique in vocal longevity. The voice retains much of its familiar clarity and recognizable timbre and was deployed with undiminished refinement. Shirley’s acting was exquisitely understated, Peter’s frightened protestations of innocence when being wrongfully arrested as a suspect in Robbins’s murder depicted with wrenching immediacy. Without exaggerating one tone, word, or gesture, Shirley commanded attention whenever he was on stage, not least when, finally released from jail, Peter quietly but joyfully returned to Catfish Row. The sincerity of Shirley’s performance made the battered but resilient honey man the show’s most unforgettably moving characterization.
Following Shirley’s path at Lincoln Center, mezzo-soprano Elvira O. Green’s 1973 début in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier began a MET career that partnered her with fellow artists of the caliber of Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Reri Grist, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Fedora Barbieri, Tatiana Troyanos, Jon Vickers, and Luciano Pavarotti. In the course of her tenure at the MET, Green also sang the cookshop owner Maria in two revivals of the Nathaniel Merrill production of Porgy and Bess. [Sadly, Porgy and Bess did not receive a new staging at the MET until the opening of James Robinson’s widely-acclaimed production in 2019.]
Reprising the rôle of Catfish Row’s den mother of sorts, Green watched over her community with indefatigable authority. Whether singing or speaking, her words were not to be ignored, a lesson in which even the flippant Sportin’ Life was schooled. Despite her sternness, epitomized by a ferociously-declaimed ‘I hates yo’ struttin’ style.’ Maria’s affection for her community was unwavering. Green scowled, physically and vocally, and hurled notes at the top of the stave with aplomb, but the core of her portrayal was tenderness. Green’s Maris was a woman made better, not bitter, by hardship.
Returning to rôles that he sang at the Metropolitan Opera as recently as December 2021, tenor Chauncey Packer swept onto the Tanger Center stage with irrepressible zeal. As Robbins, the longing for diversion that leads him to his fatal confrontation with Crown saturated his febrile singing, but there was no cruelty in his rejoinder of ‘I been workin’ all day’ to Serena’s pleas for him to avoid the craps game. Packer’s rousing voicing of the Crab man’s hawking elicited an ecstatic reaction from the audience, the singer’s artistic versatility first grieving and then thrilling.
Preaching to the choir: tenor Robert Anthony Mack as Sportin’ Life (foreground right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]
Aside from singing the number that is arguably Gershwin’s best-known vocal piece, Clara’s rôle in the opera’s drama is largely confined to serving as a Cassandra-like foreseer of misfortune. She introduces herself to the audience with ‘Summertime,’ however, and soprano Indira Mahajan’s introduction in Greensboro was sublimely auspicious. The glowing mahogany timbre of Mahajan’s voice enabled her to project her sound above the orchestra (and through the theater’s acoustical murk) without imperiling her facility for floating tones in her upper register. A sweetly magnetic stage presence, Mahajan touchingly depicted the young mother’s unflappable devotion to her husband and child. Clara’s premonition of the approaching hurricane was harrowing, and her scream as she sighted Jake’s capsized boat seemed startlingly spontaneous. The determination with which Mahajan’s Clara rushed out into the tempest to save Jake at any cost underscored the kinship between the adoring wife and Wagner’s Senta that exists in Gershwin’s musical construction. Each of Mahajan’s phrases combined tonal beauty with dramatic intensity.
The man for whom Clara heroically sacrifices her life, the ebullient fisherman Jake, was depicted with imperturbable musicality and galvanizing physical presence by baritone Sidney Outlaw. ‘A woman is a sometimes thing,’Jake’s jovial counterpart to ‘Summertime,’ Clara’s lullaby to their child, was sung with exuberance and tonal allure, the industrious father’s easygoing philosophy stated with amiable enthusiasm. Outlaw brought resolve redolent of Der fliegende Holländer to his voicing of ‘Oh, I’m agoin’ out to the Blackfish banks,’ heightening awareness of the relationships between Wagner’s and Gershwin’s stories. In spite of his untroubled nature, Outlaw’s Jake was shadowed by tragedy from his first scene. Jake’s music afforded the baritone few opportunities for the expressive lyricism at which he excels, but he created a sensitive characterization of one of opera’s few genuinely ordinary men.
Destined to become a widow in the opera’s first half hour, Serena is the moral foundation of Catfish Row, a woman of profound faith who finds solace in the promise of heavenly reward and endeavors to guide her neighbors along a more righteous path. Still, she is a woman who seeks fulfillment in living honestly, and Greensboro Opera’s Serena was never more touching than when Angela Renée Simpson’s smile flooded the stage with warmth. The soprano’s performance intimated that a woman so accustomed to strife embracing life’s fleeting joys is proof of humanity’s bond with Providence.
Serena having watched Robbins fall at Crown’s hand, Simpson intoned ‘My man’s gone now’ arrestingly, building from a hushed start, the words too painful to enunciate, to a crushing apex of despair. When the full volume of Simpson’s voice was unfurled, heaven itself quaked with her sounds. At the picnic on Kittiwah Island, her ‘Shame on all you sinners’ was a stinging rebuke of Sportin’ Life’s sacrilege. In raising prayers for divine intervention during the hurricane and calling upon ‘Doctor Jesus’ to heal Bess, Simpson sang dazzlingly, the emotional deluges never undermining vocal placement. Porgy ends the opera with a pronouncement of optimism, but, in this performance, it was Serena who instilled the belief that, come what may, Catfish Row would endure.
The art of making an entrance: soprano Rhiannon Giddens as Bess (left) and baritone Michael Preacely as Crown (right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]
On Broadway, in opera houses, and on recordings, the most effective portrayers of the eerily charismatic blasphemer and ‘happy dust’ peddler Sportin’ Life have been those whose virtuoso singing was allied with expert acting. Greensboro Opera’s Sportin’ Life, tenor Robert Anthony Mack, cavorted across the stage with agility and a dangerously disarming grin, spouting heresies with the conviction of an evangelist. Always lurking on the periphery of the action, his harassment of Bess was insistent but frustratingly genial. Mack’s performance of the beloved ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ exuded showmanship, his lithe dancing reminiscent of Ben Vereen. Passing phrases betrayed the effort required to project the voice over Gershwin’s orchestrations, but Mack utilized every sound to deepen his portrayal. His voicing of ‘There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York’ was obsequiously persuasive. Mack’s Sportin’ Life was keenly aware that the most important weapon in a trickster’s arsenal is the art of escape, but the sparkle of the tenor’s singing could not be hidden.
Baritone Michael Preacely was a Crown who unmistakably understood that, in order to repulse, he must first attract. Entering with bracing bravado in Act One, this Crown was not outshone even by the scarlet-clad Bess. This was also true of Preacely’s vocalism: amidst much wonderful singing, the excellence of his work was never overshadowed. Ever menacing, Preacely’s Crown was also atypically sympathetic, his penchant for savagery seeming to arise not from intrinsic evil or conscious choice but from a lifetime of exposure to others’ ruthlessness. The cornerstones of Crown’s liaison with Bess are lust, pride, and obsession, but the suavity with which Preacely sang, including in the scene on Kittiwah Island in which Crown’s seduction of Bess is anything but romantic, hinted that this Crown may also have truly loved Bess. Similarly, Crown’s taunting of Porgy was more juvenile than monstrous. Each word of the part was sung with meaning, the baritone rarely resorting to growling for dramatic effect. Rather, Preacely sang Crown’s music accurately and euphoniously, finding the impetus for his characterization in Gershwin’s score.
Low Country Lady: soprano Rhiannon Giddens as Bess in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jarmoz Photography]
Eighteen years had passed since soprano Rhiannon Giddens appeared on an opera stage. Focusing on widely-acclaimed projects including recording and touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has concentrated on rejuvenating old-time string-band music. Her contributions to the preservation of America’s folk traditions are invaluable, but her return to opera was a fortuitous and rightly heralded homecoming. Casting Giddens as Bess in this production garnered considerable publicity, but her portrayal of Gershwin’s complex heroine was no mere star turn. It was apparent from her first step onto the set, attired like a refugee from Josephine Baker’s Paris, that Giddens surrendered her own artistic persona to the nuances of Bess’s character, approaching a rôle interpreted in years past by Camilla Williams, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Roberta Alexander, and Leona Mitchell with unique musical and dramatic sensibilities.
As the ranks of the part’s notable exponents indicate, Bess’s music is best served by spinto voices. Giddens’s voice is a more lyrical instrument, and there were passages in which the vocal lines required slightly more heft than Giddens could supply, yet she met the challenges without pushing the voice beyond its limits. The panic with which she delivered ‘Somebody please help me’ when the police were coming to investigate Robbins’s murder gave way to the serenity that suffused her singing of ‘Oh, the train is at the station’ at Robbins’s wake. Giddens ascended to the amorous heights of ‘Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now’ fearlessly, her upper register gaining strength as the duet progressed.
The dramatic trajectory of the opera changes with Bess’s encounter with Crown on Kittiwah Island, and the burgeoning constaternation that shaded Giddens’s singing signaled that happiness with Porgy was slipping from Bess’s grasp. The contempt of ‘What you want wid Bess?’ was directed as much at Bess’s own addiction and carnal desire as at Crown. Reunited with Porgy, she sang ‘I loves you, Porgy’ affectionately, but the illusion of their blissful future was broken. In this performance, the wistfulness of Bess’s reprise of ‘Summertime’ instigated her flight from Catfish Row. Whereas some interpreters of the part portray Bess’s departure for New York with Sportin’ Life as a final lapse into debauchery, Giddens’s Bess was impelled to some degree by selflessness, her abandonment of Porgy freeing him from her demons. Giddens was a glamorous Bess, but hers was not a diva’s performance. Like her colleagues, she placed her trust in Gershwin’s music and sang it without artifice or affectation.
Happy never after: soprano Rhiannon Giddens as Bess (left) and baritone Thomas Cannon as Porgy (right) in Greensboro Opera’s January 2022 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
[Photograph © by Luke Jamroz Photography]
If love alone were sufficient to right the wrongs of the past, the love of baritone Thomas Cannon’s Porgy for Giddens’s Bess would have secured the joyous, simple life for which Porgy longed. On his terms, Porgy’s entrance in this performance was no less impactful than Crown’s, the visibility of his disability distancing him from his community. Resigned survival of an outsider’s loneliness was a momentous element of Cannon’s portrayal, his voicing of Porgy’s lines in Act One shaped by subtle melancholy. His reading of the famed ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’’ was surprisingly subdued, an eloquent expression of self-reliance. Whether to reduce the opera’s duration or marginally narrow the part’s range, cutting Porgy’s ‘Buzzard keep on flyin’ over’ is a damaging tradition. Cannon’s exhilarating account of the number revealed the depth of influence of Bess on Porgy’s life, the baritone’s intonation more secure here than in other scenes.
Cannon’s Porgy bared his heart in his ardently-sung ‘Bess, you is my woman now,’ but here, too, an awkward shyness was perceptible, the man used only to his own company slowly leaning to open his private world to another person. Porgy’s concern for Bess during her illness recalled Golaud’s vigil at the side of the dying Mélisande, helplessness crippling Cannon’s Porgy more injuriously than his physiological malady. The exchange in which Porgy divulges that he has sensed that Bess was with Crown on Kittiwah Island was especially poignant, and Cannon voiced ‘What you think I is, anyway’ subtly, assuring Bess of his commitment to liberating her from Crown’s infatuation.
In this performance, the interpretation of the opera’s final scene was refreshingly devoid of saccharine sentimentality. Cannon proclaimed ‘Oh Lawd, I’m on my way’ with bronze-toned confidence, sure of the path before him. More than in many performances, Porgy’s way seemed to lead not to New York but to meeting his Lord. The crutch with which he killed Crown was also the crutch that carried him beyond the safety of Catfish Row, the cross that engendered his salvation. The essence of Porgy and Bess is redemption, and this superlatively-sung performance honored the redeeming grace of humble people doing their best, living and loving through calamities of man and nature.