By Stephanie Wilks
July 4, 2012
Cincinnati’s music scene has always been solid, but with the inception of the Bunbury Festival starting next week and the World Choir Games (starting today), it’s safe to say our city’s music scene has never been stronger. Fittingly, the Cincinnati Opera chose this season to stage its first ever production of “The Greatest American Opera,” George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess.
Porgy & Bess is a love story that takes place during the 1920’s between a crippled beggar and hard-living beauty set in the tight-knit Christian community of Catfish Row in Charleston, SC. First written as a novel by DuBose Heyward, the infamous George Gershwin later turned the story into a full-scale stage production.
This isn’t your traditional opera. In fact, its 1935 debut was on Broadway. The story’s gritty drama and slapstick comedy, combined with its atypical musical palette – think opera mixed with traditional African American church music, jazz, and even some tunes from Gershwin’s Jewish heritage, left critics wondering, “is this a musical or an opera?”
Controversial with the press and regarded a failure until after Gershwin’s death, Porgy & Bess is now considered “The Greatest American Opera,” much in part to its genre-bridging nature. And to the delight of Cincinnati Opera fans, Conductor David Charles Abell re-introduces parts of music from Gershwin’s original score never before performed on stage.
Whether you’re familiar with Porgy & Bess or new to the opera scene, Cincinnati Opera’s performance at Music Hall won’t disappoint. The vocals are outstanding and subtitled at the top of the stage. Particularly impressive was soprano Adrienne Danrich, who played Serena, the judgmentally pious community monitor. In “Oh, Doctor Jesus,” Danrich staunchly represents the values which bind the community together and demonstrates what separates friends from foes.
The largest enemy of Catfish Row is drug-peddling troublemaker Sporting Life, played by tenor Steven Cole. Cole wittingly debunks bible passages in a slimy, devil- on-your-shoulder tone in “It Ain’t Necessarily so.” His quick, slinky jazz moves were strongly reminiscent of those old silent film villains who mischievously tie up the heroines to train tracks. Cole’s movements transfixed our eyes leaving us wary of the danger that inevitably followed his presence.
Main character Bess was perhaps the most difficult to pin down, for she lacks the deep-seeded beliefs of the Catfish Row community – young, emotionally complex and susceptible to temptation. Measha Brueggergosman maintains Bess’ innocence throughout the performance whilst displaying personal struggle at every turn in scenes, “Oh what you want wit Bess?” “I wants to stay here,” and “I loves you Porgy.”
And boy it’s hard not to love Porgy. Poignant bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu plays the cripple, carrying the plot of the opera on his knees – literally. My favorite song was the well known, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” although “Bess, you is my woman now,” and “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way,” will undoubtedly have your heart-wrenching too.
This opera wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful without the complementing sets and costumes effortlessly directing our eyes and evoking our emotions. Several two-story townhomes allow for action at varying levels and depict a community comfortable working and living together in close quarters. I particularly enjoyed the soft lighting depicting the days and nights on the coastal town and use of semitransparent screens. The costumes were enchanting with subtle browns, blues, and pastels reflecting a peaceful southern town, and then sinful Bess comes along, glowing in her red dress.
This is a show for more than opera aficionados, it’s a production for those who love and appreciate music. After all, Cincinnati is the city that sings.
Two performances remain on Friday, July 6 and Sunday, July 8. For more information or to purchase tickets, click HERE.
*Photo credits: Cincinnati Opera / Philip Groshongto top ↑