Seattle Opera’s deeply felt production addresses some of the problematic issues with "Porgy and Bess," both with offstage displays and discussions, and onstage performances from singers who imbue their characters with depth and humanity.

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Opera review

A wall descends from above the stage, shrinking the set to one cozy room that squeezes in the entire cast. The stage lights darken around them, leaving them in a dim, isolating light.

The choir booms a soulful “Gone, gone, gone,” setting the tone for a funeral scene, and Mary Elizabeth Williams as the mourning Serena moans sorrowful notes that climb evenly from a low soul-crushed wail to a heart-wrenching powerful cry. The audience members take a moment of silence to catch their breaths, and then erupt into long, loud applause.

Williams has stolen the show.

It’s not the first time, nor the last, in Seattle Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” that it feels like the cast has run away with the show.

And it’s largely due to this stellar cast, and the show’s direction (by Garnett Bruce in a production originally staged by Francesca Zambello), that this “Porgy and Bess” — a co-production with Glimmerglass Festival — rises above the stereotypes. Set in an African-American community in 1920s South Carolina, the opera — composed by George Gershwin, with a libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin — debuted on Broadway in 1935, and includes some negative depictions of the community it attempts to represent.

Seattle Opera’s deeply felt production addresses some of those issues both offstage — with informational posters displayed around the lobby at McCaw Hall and in panel discussions and forums on race and opera held with the community beforehand — and onstage, with performers who imbued their characters with depth and humanity, their voices lifted and complemented expertly by conductor John DeMain.

On opening night Saturday, Angel Blue’s Bess (Elizabeth Llewellyn plays Bess on alternate nights), the wayward woman whose struggles with love and addiction drive the story, is less the reformed bad girl and more a woman in a constant spiral — overwhelmed by addiction, by her domineering lover Crown, and even overwhelmed by Porgy’s love and the goodness of the Catfish Row community that takes her in after Crown flees as a criminal.

Alfred Walker as the love-stricken Porgy (Kevin Short plays Porgy on alternate nights) is Bess’ opposite. He is calm and unmovable, strong and stable. Walker’s smooth bass-baritone solidifies this stolid Porgy, and it is a joy when he occasionally defies some of the jazzier tones of the music, making a song about gambling (“Roll dem bones”) sound more like a moving spiritual.

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Still, the vulnerable yet empathetic take on Bess makes the character’s relationships with Porgy and Crown feel like desperate situations she falls into, rather than love or even really lust. The more dynamic relationship is between Williams’ moralizing Serena and Blue’s Bess. They shift uncomfortably between hostility, respect, disappointment and empathy, lending a richness to both characters as they evolve and revolve around the plot and each other.

Jermaine Smith is an instant hit when he comes onto the scene, lighting up the stage and enlivening the scene as the dynamic Sportin’ Life, clad in a vibrant suit, designed by costume designer Paul Tazewell. Smith has played the role in 15 different productions around the world, and it shows. He knows the music forward and backward and carefully crafts his movements to every staccato and every slithering rhythm, making for a Sportin’ Life you can’t look away from. So it’s not surprising that the susceptible Bess caves to his temptations after Porgy is taken by the police.

The supporting cast shines too. Brandie Sutton as Clara opens the classic American opera serenely with fan-favorite “Summertime,” to which she brings a softness and vulnerability that makes it the lullaby it’s supposed to be. Look around the audience and you’re certain to see several people lulled, singing wistfully along. Derrick Parker as a charismatic Jake destined to break our hearts and Bernard Holcomb as an adorably quirky Mingo help flesh out the Catfish Row community. Especially welcome is Judith Skinner’s no-nonsense Maria, whose side eye punctures some of the actions by other characters that could otherwise be seen as harmful stereotypes.

Also adding immensely to the strong feel of community in this production is the chorus, with many of its members from the greater Seattle area, in addition to elsewhere. Rather than the noisy, reactionary bundle of bodies that the chorus has often been reduced to, the chorus here — used to its fullest potential, allowing it to be more than a backdrop — creates a real sense of community.

Music, costume, lighting (Mark McCullough) and set design (Peter J. Davison) come together harmoniously to highlight the considerable talents of the cast. By centering the cast’s talents and personalities, the production not only adds richness to the characters, but also highlights one of the opera’s greatest strengths — that, despite its controversial origins, it is one of few operas that provides an opportunity for black singers to break into an industry in which they have long been underrepresented.

 

This review has been corrected to reflect that some singers in the chorus are from outside the Seattle area.

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The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” Seattle Opera, with John DeMain conducting. Saturday, Aug. 11, continuing through Aug. 25; McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org.