A review of Seattle Opera's first production of the classic George and Ira Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess." It plays at McCaw Hall through Aug. 20.

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Opera Review |

After previously presenting two Houston Grand Opera touring versions of the show, Seattle Opera has at last mounted its own production of “Porgy and Bess.”

And the musical and dramatic richness of Chris Alexander’s new staging of this intrinsically American masterwork is a satisfying reward for the long wait.

Stirring principals, a superior chorus of local singers and strong orchestral backup led by renowned “Porgy and Bess” conductor John DeMain provide a splendid introduction to the classic.

And for longtime fans of “Porgy and Bess,” Seattle Opera finds new hues and nuances in the beloved opera without distorting it.

One is captivated from the first strains of the blues-lullabye “Summertime” (sung by the fine soprano Angel Blue, as Clara), to the emotion-charged finale when the hobbling beggar Porgy (the great Gordon Hawkins) sets off on a quixotic journey to find his departed lover, Bess (the compelling soprano Lisa Daltirus, in excellent voice).

“Porgy and Bess” shines here not just in the gleaming vocal and orchestral treatment of George and Ira Gershwin’s magnificent score, but also in an understanding that this is a portrait of a community.

As in his novel and play “Porgy,” DuBose Heyward’s libretto (which wife Dorothy Heyward contributed to) is a vibrant profile of a 1920s, African-American community in the Deep South — one scarred by poverty, violence, racism, but also tightly bound by love, interdependence and faith.

The ramshackle seaside enclave of Catfish Row (well evoked in Michael Scott’s sets for the New York Harlem Theatre) is abuzz with activity — kids playing, an open-air barber at work, folks mending fishing nets, shooting craps, peddling their wares.

Hawkins’ gruff, robust Porgy belongs to this world. But Bess is an outsider, a “fallen” woman at the mercy of a brutal lover (Crown) and a dapper dope-pusher (Sportin’ Life). Though shunned at first, Daltirus’s blowzy, beaten-down Bess is gradually accepted as she finds safe haven with lonely Porgy.

Director Alexander adds extra notes of vulnerability to the love duets “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You Porgy,” by posting Hawkins and Daltirus far apart onstage, then letting their voices, soaring in radiant song, draw them slowly into fervent, needy embraces.

A poignant funeral scene enhances the new widow Serena’s virtuoso mourning aria, for which superb soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams won a thunderous opening night ovation.

A hurricane whips up with gulf force, via projections and sound effects, as the community fearfully huddles and prays together. The viciousness of Michael Redding’s demonic Crown terrifies. And Bess’s seduction by Sportin’ Life (Jermaine Smith) is a real battle for a woman’s soul.

Comic relief is also well-supplied, mainly by contralto Gwendolyn Brown’s earthy Maria, and Smith’s dazzling, fleet-footed turn.

Any missteps here are minor. This “Porgy and Bess” is a tender, vivid account of a justly treasured classic. Savor it, while you can.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com