(Credit: Luke Jamroz)
Greensboro Opera’s long-awaited production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Thomas Cannon and Sidney Outlaw was performed January 21-23, 2022 at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. Originally, the opera was to take place in 2020 but was postponed due to the onset of the pandemic.
The wait was well worth it.
In the past two years of living with COVID-19, life has been changed for everyone. People have clung to what comforts them and the people who matter most to them. Artists, especially performers, felt this deeply. In 2020, when performances were canceled and postponed, the opera community found ways to carry on and support each other. Although it took a total of four years for this production to finally play, it happened because of the resilience within the community.
The story of “Porgy and Bess” overlaps with today’s current pandemic. “Porgy and Bess” is set in the small Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood of Catfish Row during the Great Depression. Just like today with the effects of the pandemic, the people of Catfish Row are counting on their community to keep them going.
This particular production showed that sense of community and trust. The opera’s staging by Everett McCorvey, with associate director Richard Gammon and assistant director and assistant choreographer Peggy Stamps didn’t take many risks to change or modernize the staging, but it worked. It was simple and straightforward. It showed the Catfish Row community as it was.
The ensemble opened the show by setting the tone and giving the audience a sense of the way of life in Catfish Row. There was music, dancing and some division within the community. The two scaffoldings on either side of the stage separated the men and the women; the men’s choir on the left of the stage playing craps and the women’s choir on the right of the stage scattered on the scaffolding doing various household activities. This choice of staging was carried throughout most of the opera.
As the story develops and Robbins is killed, the people of Catfish Row support each other to protect and comfort each other.
Emotional connection between the main roles
Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens sang the title role of Bess. Her unique voice with folk, blues, gospel and classical influences served her well here and made a memorable Bess. Gidden’s rendition of the “Summertime” cover was outstanding. For the final glissando at the end of the piece, Giddens sang from a high B to B below middle C. This choice matched her voice and style perfectly and was executed seamlessly.
Giddens acted with devotion to her character and was diligent about creating a genuine connection with other characters, making all of Bess’ choices and experiences touching. She described Bess’s internal struggles in her relationships with Crown and Porgy and with the “happy dust” in a compelling way. She made these things evident through her visceral playing and vocal expression. Every note she sang came across as important and unique, creating a deep connection to her suffering.
Gidden’s portrayal of Bess pairs well with Thomas Cannon’s Porgy. Cannon was fully committed to the character. This was evident through his physical portrayal of Porgy’s disability and the longing, grief and grief in his voice and expression during “Oh, Bess, Where’s My Bess?” and “Bess is gone.”
Baritone Michael Preacely sang the role of Crown with a rich, warm sound. He demonstrated strong possession of Bess which suited well with his co-star’s characterization of the title role.
Supporting roles that stood out were Clara sung by soprano Indira Mahajan, Jake sung by baritone Sidney Outlaw, Sportin’ Life by tenor Robert Anthony Mack, Serena sung by soprano Angela Renée Simpson and the short scene by soprano Paisley Alexandria Williams as Strawberry Woman.
Soprano Indira Mahajan sang the role of Clara. In the score, “Summertime” is marked “Lullaby, with a lot of expression”. Mahajan carefully followed this direction. Its floating vibrato crossed the concert hall from the first notes of “Summertime”. That part of her singing stood out and was beautiful. His pianissimos were well controlled, but unfortunately most of the final consonants were lost.
Outlaw commanded the scene in “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There” without dominating or overshadowing the set. Her voice was so free and open, and full of spin. This mastery of his technique allowed for impeccable diction.
Robert Anthony Mack played a very fun and engaging sporting life. Mack’s playful version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” had a fun blend of jazz and classical that was delightful and character-appropriate. In addition, his dancing and general ease of movement were excellent.
In “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Oh, Doctor Jesus,” Angela Renée Simpson’s dark, warm, and soulful tone added to her heartfelt performances.
Paisley Alexandrira William’s fiery Strawberry Woman was cheerful and flawless. His voice sailed effortlessly higher. His stage presence was captivating.
Orchestra and Ensemble
Awadgin Pratt conducted the Greensboro Opera Orchestra with great care. He engaged with the singer(s) and treated each track with a level of individuality. This allowed for a united performance between the singers and the orchestra.
That said, the sound of the full set was never mixed – the male voices continually overpowered the female ones. Primarily, only the women’s soprano part was heard, which created a lack of fullness in the overall sound. The only times there was a unified sound between the choirs was when the women’s choir or the men’s choir sang with a soloist.
For example, in Clara’s “Summertime,” the added female vocals supported her beautifully. It was also the case in “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There”, there was a nice mix between all the voices. There was no discussion of the chorus, so there’s no way of knowing if it was an intentional choice to vocally demonstrate the typical disunity between men and women at that time and the communities built between the sexes or if it was just a stylistic choice. However, it still echoed in the room.
In the end, this production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was quite enjoyable. All of the music, acting, directing, and design elements were done in an enjoyable way. The strong sense of community throughout the opera was uplifting.