Fort Worth Opera triumphs in a moving and powerful “Porgy and Bess”

Mon Apr 29, 2019 at 12:24 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Indira Mahajan and Thomas Cannon star in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at Fort Worth Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Fort Worth Opera is presenting George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Bass Performance Hall in a production that captures the raw power and unadulterated beauty of that greatest of all American works for the opera stage. Intriguingly designed sets and costumes, unfailingly energetic staging, and a cast packed with magnificent singers resulted in a captivating performance worthy of this masterpiece in Sunday’s performance at Bass Performance Hall.

Francesca Zambello’s widely-traveled production features sets by Peter J. Davison evoking urban squalor, and, for the Kittiwah Island picnic sequence, an aura of quasi-apocalyptic ruin. Within this tattered but spacious setting, director Garnett Bruce creates a sense of lively community life, in which the marginalized denizens of Catfish Row find shared sorrow, communal identity, and, at times, ecstatic joy. 

Crowd scenes and fight scenes sizzled—particularly the fight-to-the-death between Porgy and Crown. And the depiction of the death of Clara and Jake in the hurricane scene was thrilling and heartbreaking at the same time. 

Baritone Thomas Cannon, who completed his undergraduate training at Baylor, rendered the central role of Porgy with a tightly focused tone quality. His keen  dramatic sense made time stand still when he laughs over the freshly killed body of Crown, and again at the moment when he announces his determination to go to New York. This production marks Cannon’s debut as Porgy, and he was as powerful in the final measures of this excruciatingly demanding role as in his first entrance in Act I.

Soprano Indira Mahajan, who has become a leading interpreter of the role of Bess, lived up to her reputation and past performances with a piercingly beautiful upper register. Mahajan, frighteningly convincing as the intoxicated, sexually codependent addict, was even more striking as a woman whose heart belongs to Porgy but whose body is drawn to Crown. Typical of her sense of dramatic timing was the heart-stopping, split-second delay of her first note in the duet “Bess, you is my woman now.”

Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life in Fort Worth Opera’s “Porgy and Bess.” Photo: Marty Sohl

Jermaine Smith, has likewise established himself as the leading Sportin’ Life of our time. The tenor owned that role with a deliciously evil energy, dancing through every word and nuancing every syllable. Baritone Norman Garrett, meanwhile, brings a thunderous vocal power to the role of Crown, towering over the stage and transforming from a drunken addict into a defiant villain, shaking his fist at God.

As Clara, soprano Meroe Khalia Adeeb delivered the opening aria “Summertime” with lyric sweetness that burst, at moments, into maternal majesty. Baritone John Fulton as Jake matched with a tender but convivial “A woman is a sometimes thing.” 

Soprano Karen Slack as Serena stopped the show more than once as Serena, most memorably with her soaring, almost wailing take on “My man’s gone now.” Gwendolyn Brown brought a consistent contralto richness as the indomitable Maria, but with a bombastically humorous delivery of “I hates yo’ struttin’ style.” Among the many roles, soprano Samantha McElheney John produced an arrestingly smooth version of the Strawberry Woman’s street song.

The chorus, trained by Alfrelynn Roberts, provided a soaring resonance to Gershwin’s grand choral passages, while also introducing a convincing sense of improvised interjection at appropriate moments. Eric Sean Fogel provided lively choreography designed for a chorus of opera singers who are not dancers, but who danced nonetheless with precision and enthusiasm.

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra transformed itself into a top-notch pit orchestra for the occasion. Fort Worth Opera artistic director Joe Illick provided solid conducting and steady impetus throughout.

Given the complex power of Gershwin’s score, which easily ranks as one of the outstanding monuments of 20th-century music and the operatic repertoire, as well as the excellence of this production and performance, it is disconcerting to see Fort Worth Opera advertise Porgy and Bess as a “Broadway Classic.”

The fact that the piece was occasionally arranged in the past and presented in various stripped-down versions as a musical play does not call for mislabeling it as such. A Broadway show can be a great thing, but Porgy and Bess is an operatic masterpiece in every sense.

Porgy and Bess will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bass Performance Hall.; 817-731-0726.

One Response to “Fort Worth Opera triumphs in a moving and powerful “Porgy and Bess””

  1. Posted May 03, 2019 at 2:36 pm by Valerie Bauhofer

    When will be able to see this great production in Austin, TX???

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