Fine Times On Catfish Row

In 1976, Houston Grand Opera gave new life to George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess when it staged the first full-scale version of the work in 40 years. Afterward, the opera gained increasing acceptance in the standard repertoire. Now, HGO has come up with a revisionist interpretation of Gershwin's classic that surpasses its earlier, ground-breaking work.

HGO's latest Porgy, which premiered last Friday, is zestier and more innovative than the earlier production, last seen on the Houston stage in 1987. It also goes to greater lengths to rid the opera of the offensive stereotypes regarding the black community that have detracted from the work since its creation 60 years ago.

Excellent singing, elaborate staging and delightful choreography make HGO's new Porgy a joy to watch from start to finish. HGO general director David Gockley hired Hope Clarke to direct this new production, and the choice was an excellent one. Clarke possesses impressive credentials as a Broadway actress, choreographer and director. She received a Tony nomination for her choreography in Jelly's Last Jam and directed Opera Ebony's concert version of Porgy and Bess in Helsinki, Finland. Moreover, incredible as it may seem, she's the first African-American to direct a full-scale version of the opera. Gockley deserves special commendation for taking the long-overdue step of giving an African-American the opportunity to direct an opera dealing with life among the black Gullah community in the Carolinas in the 1930s.

Clarke's refreshing vision of Catfish Row, the mythical fishing village where the opera is set, is based more on fact than stereotype. Earlier productions of Porgy have portrayed Catfish Row as an impoverished and dingy community, populated by shiftless ne'er-do-wells. But in the HGO production, Catfish Row, while a little worse for wear, is neat and clean. And while it has its share of unsavory characters, such as Crown and the drug dealer, Sportin' Life, the vast majority of its inhabitants are hard-working, moral and upstanding. They also display a diversity in wealth as reflected in their dress.

In the 1930s, the Gullahs of the Carolinas were only a few generations removed from Africa and had cultural ties with the West Indies. Hence, Clarke's adaptation of Porgy and Bess incorporates African and Caribbean rhythms as well as the familiar jazz and blues melodies that make up the bulk of the opera. These two new elements are most prominent in the scene depicting the picnic on Kittiwah Island. The beat of an African drum leads into a sequence where the picnic-goers dance enthusiastically to Calypso-like music. The inclusion of these African and West Indian elements add spice and authenticity to the opera without detracting from its integrity.

The cast, for the most part, performs admirably. Alvy Powell is excellent as Porgy, the crippled beggar with a heart of gold. His first act rendition of "I Got Plenty O' Nothin'," was rousing and lighthearted, even if it did lack a bit in vocal strength. However, he recovered nicely for his love duet, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," near the close of the first act. His rendition of "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way," at the opera's end was positively powerful.

Marquita Lister turned in a fine, if slightly understated, performance as Bess, Porgy's ill-matched lover. Her singing was excellent, particularly in her first act love duet with Porgy and her second act duet with Sportin' Life, "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York." Her moving rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" is also memorable.

Larry Marshall portrays Sportin' Life and his interpretation of the cynical ballad, "It Ain't Necessarily So," was one of the highlights of Friday's performance. Not only did Marshall convey the proper degree of wit and skepticism in his rendition of the song, he also displayed a delightful dance step reminiscent of the late Cab Calloway. About the only knock on his performance is that he came across as a tad too likable to be totally convincing as the sinister drug dealer who entices Bess to leave with him for New York after giving her cocaine.

Angela Simpson, who portrays Serena, turned in the night's best performance. She captured the audience's affection early in the first act with her heartfelt and moving rendition of "My Man's Gone Now" and retained it throughout the opera. In the end, she received the most enthusiastic ovation. Stacey Robinson turned in an adequate performance in the primarily dramatic role of the murderous Crown, Porgy's chief rival for Bess' affection. Kimberly Jones as Clara offered a haunting rendition of the opera's signature number, "Summertime," at the outset of the first act. The staging decision to have her sing this ballad in a stunning scene depicting Catfish Row at sunrise was truly inspired.

As is generally the case with an HGO production, the ensemble singing was outstanding. The orchestra, under the direction of conductor John DeMain, performed Gershwin's score with crispness and clarity. For its first three operas this season, HGO used minimal sets; the return to more elaborate staging for Porgy and Bess is most welcome. Kenneth Foy's sets convincingly convey the flavor of a Southern fishing village in the early part of this century. And the depiction of the hurricane scene in the second act was electrifying.

At the premiere, HGO used surtitles for only part of the performance. The explanation found on an addendum inside the program was that certain key textual passages proved difficult to project in the surtitle format. It was also mentioned that the opera is a familiar one, and that it is sung in English. Audience members were provided space on the addendum to record their opinions and convey them to HGO officials: here's a vote for complete surtitling. The text of any opera, no matter if it is sung in the audience's native language, is often difficult to understand. Surtitles can be extremely helpful in enhancing the audiences' understanding and appreciation of nearly any opera.

But the lack of complete surtitling detracted only slightly from the performance. HGO's new production of Porgy and Bess, if it doesn't quite fall in the "must-see" category, comes pretty darn close.

Porgy and Bess plays through February 10 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-2787.


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