Greensboro Opera Review: Porgy and Bess
Rhiannon Giddens, Thomas Cannon, and Sidney Outlaw Shine in Gershwin ClassicBy Afton Wooten
(Credit: Luke Jamroz)
The long-awaited Greensboro Opera production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” starring Rhiannon Giddens, Thomas Cannon, and Sidney Outlaw was performed on Jan. 21 and 23, 2022 at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. Originally the opera was scheduled to take place in 2020 but was postponed due to the start of the pandemic.
The wait was well worth it.
Over the past two years living with COVID-19, life has been altered for everyone. People have clung to what brings them comfort and to the people that are most important to them. Artists, especially performing artists, have felt this deeply. In 2020 when performances were being canceled and rescheduled, the opera community found ways to keep going and to support one another. While it took this production four years in total to finally be performed, it happened because of the resilience within the community.
The story of “Porgy and Bess” overlaps with today’s current pandemic.” Porgy and Bess” is set in the small Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood, Catfish Row during the Great Depression. Much like today with the effects of the pandemic, the people of Catfish Row rely on their community to keep them going.
This production in particular showed this sense of community and reliance. The stage direction of the opera by Everett McCorvey, along with Associate Stage Director Richard Gammon and Assistant Stage Director and Assistant Choreographer Peggy Stamps did not take many risks in changing or modernizing the staging, but it worked. It was simple and direct. It showed the Catfish Row community as they were.
The ensemble opened the show setting the tone and giving the audience a sense of the way of living in Catfish Row. There was music, dancing, and some division among the community. The two scaffolding sets on either side of the stage separated the men and women; the men’s chorus on the stage left playing craps and the women’s chorus on stage right scattered on the scaffolding doing a variety of household activities. This staging choice was carried throughout most of the opera.
As the story develops and Robbins is killed, the people of Catfish Row stand by each other for protection and comfort.
Emotional Connection Between Leading Roles
Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens sang the title role of Bess. Her unique voice with folk, blues, gospel, and classical influences served her well here and made for a memorable Bess. Gidden’s interpretation of the reprise of “Summertime” was outstanding. For the final glissando at the end of the piece, Giddens sang from a high B down to the B below middle C. This choice fit her voice and style perfectly and was executed seamlessly.
Giddens acted with devotion to her character and was diligent in creating a genuine connection with other characters, making all of Bess’ choices and experiences touching. She depicted Bess’ internal struggles in her relationships with Crown and Porgy and with “happy dust” in a convincing manner. She made these things evident through her visceral acting and her vocal expression. Each note she sang came across as if it was important and unique, creating a deep connection to her suffering.
Gidden’s portrayal of Bess paired well with Thomas Cannon’s Porgy. Cannon was fully committed to the character. This was evident through his physical representation of Porgy’s disability and the longing, sorrow and heartbreak in his voice and expression during “Oh, Bess, Where’s My Bess?” and “Bess is Gone.”
Baritone Michael Preacely sang the role of Crown with a rich, warm sound. He demonstrated a strong possession of Bess that meshed well with his co-star’s characterization of the title role.
The supporting roles that stood out were Clara performed by soprano Indira Mahajan, Jake sung by baritone Sidney Outlaw, Sportin’ Life by tenor Robert Anthony Mack, Serena sung by soprano Angela Renée Simpson, and soprano Paisley Alexandria Williams’ short scene as Strawberry Woman.
Soprano Indira Mahajan sang the role of Clara. In the score, “Summertime” is marked “Lullaby, with much expression.” Mahajan followed this direction carefully. Her fluttery vibrato soared through the concert hall from the first notes of “Summertime.” This part of her singing stood out and was stunning. Her pianissimos were nicely controlled, but sadly most ending consonants were lost.
Outlaw commanded the stage in “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There” while not overpowering or upstaging the ensemble. His voice was so free and open, and full of spin. This control of his technique allowed for impeccable diction.
Robert Anthony Mack played a very fun and engaging Sportin’ Life. Mack’s playful version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” had a fun jazz and classical mix that was delightful and fitting for the character. Also, his dancing and general ease of movement were excellent.
In “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Oh, Doctor Jesus” Angela Renée Simpson’s dark, warm, soulful tone added to her heartfelt performances.
Paisley Alexandira William’s spirited Strawberry Woman was cheerful and flawless. Her voice sailed to the high notes effortlessly. Her stage presence was captivating.
Orchestra and Ensemble
Awadgin Pratt conducted Greensboro Opera Orchestra with great care. He was engaged with the singer(s) and treated each piece with a level of individuality. This made for a united performance between the singers and orchestra.
That said, the full ensemble’s sound was never blended – the men’s voices continuously overpowered the women’s. Mainly only the soprano one part of the women’s was heard which created a lack of fullness in the ensemble’s sound. The only times there was a united sound between the choruses was when the women’s chorus or the men’s chorus was singing with a soloist.
For example in Clara’s “Summertime,” the added female voices supported her beautifully. This was also the case in “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There,” there was a nice blend between all voices. There was no discussion on the chorus, so there’s no way of knowing if this was an intentional choice to vocally demonstrate the typical disunion between males and females during this era and the communities built between the sexes or if this was simply a stylistic choice. However, it still sounded off in the hall.
Ultimately, this production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was quite enjoyable. All of the music, acting, staging, and design elements were carried out in a pleasing way. The strong sense of community throughout the opera was uplifting.