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Poignant 'Porgy' Returns to the Kennedy Center

Eric Owens (Porgy) and Morenike Fadayomi (Bess), Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess defies categorization, a piece of our cultural heritage that one does not get to see in full production very often but that draws audience-members in droves. Francesca Zambello’s production, since its premiere in 2005 at Washington National Opera, has had performances in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, and now, beginning this past Saturday night, Washingtonians are getting a second look. The single set design, swiveling and changing ever so slightly for different locales and moments, is gorgeous. Complete with transformative lighting by Mark McCullough that is somehow a character unto itself, the multi-faceted and -leveled set serves the show well. Porgy and Bess takes place in the 1920s, but Zambello’s production hearkens to the 1950s, when “racial tensions were just about to boil over,” as she puts it. While the show is obviously dated, with themes of race, gambling, addiction, violence, and sex, it is also still just as relevant today as it was in 1935. Despite being set in South Carolina, it is also particularly poignant in our city, which has been, and still is, a unique witness to the African-American story.

Homegrown soprano Alyson Cambridge was one of the standout singers, especially in a gorgeous rendition of Summertime. The chorus and all comprimario roles were filled by local talent. This opera demands across-the-board typecasting, and while the roles were all filled with excellent actors who fit the bill, many, unfortunately, lacked singing prowess. The insatiable Sportin’ Life was portrayed by Jermaine Smith, who often made up for a less than substantial voice with dancing and over-the-top mannerisms. Maria, sung by Gwendolyn Brown, was a joy to watch as a particularly strong presence and character, but also a weak voice. A notable exception was Eric Owens as the steadfast Porgy, with a velvet voice that soared over the orchestra. Particularly moving was the duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now with Morenike Fadayomi as Bess. Owens and Fadayomi blended beautifully, both vocally and emotionally. Fadayomi also shone, but was, unfortunately, often overpowered by conductor John Mauceri’s orchestra. In fact, the general balance between singers and orchestra was frequently off, made worse by a weak chorus and thick orchestration.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, National Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' (Washington Post, March 22)

---, Alyson Cambridge returns home for Washington National Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' (Washington Post, March 19)

Emily Cary, Washington National Opera marks 75th anniversary of 'Porgy and Bess' (Washington Examiner, March 16)
Also of note was Lisa Daltirus, as Serena, singing during her husband’s funeral, which garnered the first spontaneous applause from the audience for her stunning and haunting lamentation. Eric Greene's performance as Jake, in the early number A Woman Is a Sometime Thing, was perfect in its homey richness and chemistry with Cambridge, as his wife, Clara. All in all, the production itself is beautiful -- a fitting accolade to George Gershwin’s vision, and never trite. While some of the cast members were more actors than singers, the raw emotion of this show was certainly something to witness. As Porgy hobbled off stage in search of Bess, and all else lost, at the very end, the striking light and angled exit left that gut feeling -- this show is important, and Zambello’s production proved just that.

Porgy and Bess continues through April 3, with tickets to four recently added performances now also on sale.

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