The Washington National Opera gave “Porgy and Bess” the best possible 75th anniversary present — a stupendous opening night performance 3/20.
The best-known, best-loved American opera may never have sounded better, or been more poignant, with American bass-baritone Eric Owens portraying the crippled Porgy; London-born Nigerian soprano Morenike Fadayomi as the super-sultry Bess; DC area native soprano Alyson Cambridge as the lovely Clara; baritone Eric Greene as her devoted husband Jake; and tenor Jermaine Smith as the mesmerizin’, hypnotizin’ Sportin’ Life among the many stand-outs, as is the entire all-local chorus.
The opening, “Summertime”, sung by Cambridge and reprised by her and Fadayomi, are the best of the best times in the renowned Gershwin opera. “Summertime”, which reportedly has some 17,500 different recordings, has rarely if ever shined as brightly and warmly.
Owens’ immensely powerful, rich voice and presence bring a fresh brilliance and tenderness to the smitten Porgy. The empathy is hearthbreaking, especially when he sings “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, and after she runs away with Sportin’ Life, “Oh Bess, Where’s My Bess”, and at the end when Porgy limps off to find her, “Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way”.
Owens’ acting range is exceptional. Known primarily for new opera, he opened the Washington National Opera’s (WNO) current season as the slapsticky Don Basilio in “The Barber of Seville”.
All lead roles and most featured roles are double cast in this production of “Porgy and Bess”. The opera, by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, had its Broadway premiere in 1935.
Director Francesca Zambello has updated this production to the 1950s when “racial tensions were just about to boil over,” she said. The most notable change is Porgy using a crutch instead of a cart.
Also, conductor John Mauceri — who researched, restored, and recorded Gershwin’s original score — noted, “many musical changes have been made for this series of performances based on the newly restored performing version.”
Mauceri, who has received the Grammy, Tony, Emmy, among other awards, occasionally allowed the excellent orchestra’s volume to overshadow even the strongest singers, including Owens, Fadayomi, and Greene.
The choreography of Jennifer Ford, in her WNO debut, had Sportin’ Life shimmyin’ and struttin’ ‘ like a combo of James Brown, Little Richard, and a bit of Bob Fosse. Crown, the pimp-lover of Bess, crawled after her and coiled himself around her like a snake to steal her from Porgy.
The wildly applauding, bravo-ing, standing-ovation audience agreed that “We got heaven the whole (night) long”, as one of these famed songs says.
For more info and tickets: Washington National Opera, www.dc-opera.org, 202-295-2400 or 800-US-OPERA. Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.