ArtsATL > Music > Review: Atlanta Opera returns to its native strength in “Porgy and Bess”

Review: Atlanta Opera returns to its native strength in “Porgy and Bess”

When the Atlanta Opera first performed Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” in 2005 at the Civic Center, it was among the first of the revitalized company’s artistic triumphs. The chorus was especially wonderful, prepared by Walter Huff to the highest standards most anyone had ever heard. A review of that “Porgy” caught the eye of Paris’ Opéra-Comique, and a few years later the choisters were singing the opera in France, Spain and Luxembourg.

Recruiting and coaching a good “Porgy” chorus is difficult — perhaps the most challenging aspect of staging the opera. As in Musorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” or Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” the townfolk choir of “Porgy and Bess” is arguably the opera’s most essential character. To capitalize on its native strength, the Atlanta Opera had hatched a plan to keep a standing “Porgy” chorus at the ready, to deploy nationally or internationally.

The sour economy put that plan on hiatus, but the company has returned to “Porgy,” now at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, in a show that shouldn’t be missed. Trouble is, all four performances of the run, which opened Saturday and continues through March 6, are sold out. (Photos by Tim Wilkerson.)

Huff’s chorus is again the star of “Porgy,” and I’ve never heard more impassioned and precise versions of “Overflow” and “Leavin’ for the Promised Land.”

There are many highlights, as I mentioned in my AJC review. In the dim light of an old Charleston courtyard, Clara sings her baby to sleep with “Summertime,” as fragrant and soothing a lullaby as exists in American music. In the distance, the humming of the women’s chorus evokes the humid mists of the night.

Conductor Keith Lockhart, famous from the Boston Pops, here making his Atlanta Opera debut, often had the orchestra and chorus sounding as if they were playing Ravel or Debussy — a rich impressionistic palette of sound that cradled soprano NaGuanda Nobles for the first of the opera’s many hits.

The artistic and box-office success of this “Porgy” is the latest piece of well planned good luck for the often beleaguered company. Last month, the opera announced a $9 million bequest from the will of Barbara D. Stewart, a longtime benefactor; General Director Dennis Hanthorn dedicated this production of “Porgy” to her memory.

George Gershwin’s brilliantly imperfect opera collects the many strains of American music on one stage, with sounds of spirituals and gospel, jazz and blues, Yiddish folk and classical opera traditions seamlessly blended. But the libretto — by brother Ira Gershwin with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward — includes too many characters and never quite settles on how seriously, or sympathetically, to draw the main roles. What’s the focus of the story? The doomed love triangle, or the remarkable residents of Catfish Row? And where the optimism at the end speaks to the American can-do spirit, you leave the theater feeling that it’s an emotional cop-out. Suffice it to say the Great American Opera has its complications.

Most of the cast was making an Atlanta Opera debut. Baritone Eric Greene was a ferociously charismatic Crown, the wild and vicious drug addict whose crime and punishment drives the opera’s plot. Atlanta native Michael Redding, a bass-baritone with a clear voice and generous delivery, sang Porgy two-dimensionally, as a strong personality without much vulnerability. Vocally, Laquita Mitchell’s Bess was true to character: she is past her youth, she snorts “happy dust” and lives in the fast and dirty lane. To that end, the bloom is off Mitchell’s soprano, although her singing was always assured.

The opera’s many small roles are generally well cast, with Aundi Marie Moore’s Serena a standout, along with Chauncey Parker’s show-stealing Sportin’ Life and Justin Lee Miller’s Jake.

"Bess, you is my woman now." Laquita Mitchell sings Bess and Michael Redding is Porgy.

Directed by Larry Marshall, himself a “Porgy” veteran, the production originated at the University of Kentucky, with high-definition video scenery developed by its Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. Virtual sets have been used in Europe for a few years. Some of these “Porgy” images, collected by Richard Kagey, were strikingly effective, such as the hurricane scene of punishing waves and palm trees ready to snap in half.

There are many small but insightful touches, such as the Act 3 walks-ons from the Strawberry Woman (Ann Marie McPhail) and the Crab Man (Timothy Miller), who sell their food not amid the bustle of the courtyard but, more surreally, with just Porgy alone on stage, as if they were his hallucinations.

But there is a flaw in the sociological concept. “Porgy” premiered in 1935 and, like most great operas, can be re-imagined in many settings. But this production team has erased notions of an impoverished underclass, the essential element that motivates all the characters. The scrubbed-clean houses (which now belong to Charleston’s super-rich) and elegant vintage costumes (designed by Judy Dearing) are simply too proper and too middle-class for a community with such low self-esteem, one that tolerates open-air drug dealing, gambling and murder and can’t raise a few dollars for a funeral. In neutralizing the daily horrors of Catfish Row, this production prunes back some of its explosive joy, too.

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