Cincinnati Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' is as Relatable as it is Lively

The current Cincinnati Opera production is only the second time in the company’s 99-year history it has performed "Porgy and Bess"

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click to enlarge Porgy (Morris Robinson) and Bess (Talise Trevigne) with the Catfish Row community in Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Gershwins’ "Porgy and Bess." - Photo: Philip Groshong
Photo: Philip Groshong
Porgy (Morris Robinson) and Bess (Talise Trevigne) with the Catfish Row community in Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Gershwins’ "Porgy and Bess."

Porgy and Bess, a folk tale, centers on the inhabitants of a coastal town in rural South Carolina called Catfish Row. A tragic love story between Porgy, a disabled beggar, and Bess, a woman with another complicated love affair and a “happy dust” habit, the two must dream, fight and come face to face with their respective truths. From the moment the screen-printed scrim rises onstage at Music Hall to reveal the battered but not broken homes of Catfish Row to the final stirring town scene, the tight-knit community of diverse, realistic characters and their many joys and tragedies is as relatable as it is lively. 

The current Cincinnati Opera production is only the second time in the company’s 99-year history it has performed Porgy and Bess. Composed by George Gershwin, with a libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward — the author of the play and novel Porgy upon which the opera is based — Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935 and is regarded as a seminal American folk opera, and the first to feature African-Americans in all singing roles. 

The show opens with golden-voiced Clara, telling us that it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. Soprano Janai Brugger makes the oft-performed song fully hers, soaring effortlessly to meet each note and taking us with her for the ride. It’s a lovely rendition of a classic that can be taken for granted. The men of Catfish Row are busy playing craps, and the women are chatting and altogether more industriously occupied. Having never seen Porgy and Bess, I appreciated the world-building of this opening.

We are introduced to sturdy Jake, Clara's husband, sung by vibrant baritone Reginald Smith, Jr., and weaselly drug dealer Sportin’ Life, sung by mellifluous tenor Frederick Ballentine, Jr., whose delightful, oily slick performance reminded me of an evil Bruno Mars. We also meet matronly Maria, portrayed by scene-stealing contralto La’Shelle Allen, and eventually, our protagonist, Porgy himself, bass Morris Robinson.

Robinson gives the disabled beggar Porgy the richest, roundest of souls, filling out his notes with depth, poignancy and resonance. When he sings, “When God make cripple, he mean him to be lonely,” well, I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up on the spot. Robinson dug in deep to his character and made it impossible for us to not care about Porgy.

Soon, Crown (baritone Nmon Ford) and Bess (soprano Talise Trevigne) stumble into the action like drunken peacocks. You can feel Crown’s sleaze — and danger — oozing off the stage. He is a glowering, threatening, seductive presence as the man who won’t quit Bess and brings turmoil to Catfish Row.

Bess is a harsh and angular character at first, almost one-dimensional in the prototypical (male) scripting as a “fallen woman.” It’s a testament to Trevigne’s immense talent that she effortlessly and believably takes outcast Bess from a defiant temptress to devoted girlfriend to desperate woman with limited options.

That’s one of the elements of Porgy and Bess that rang most true in 2019 throughout the production: the recurrence of bad decisions as attempts to self-soothe from societal and class issues like poverty, racism, loneliness, drug abuse and domestic abuse.

I saw Porgy’s subtle ostracization by the residents of Catfish Row as a way in which he and Bess could connect. She was flat-out referred to as a “slut” by one of the townspeople, and not one of them would let her into their homes — except for Porgy — after a crime Crown commits. It was infuriatingly hypocritical that these God-fearing people shamed Bess for her life choices. 

Consequently, Porgy and Bess fall in love, and the imminent danger of Crown and Sportin’ Life’s insidious drug "happy dust" are delayed. The duet between the protagonists, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now," is moving, tender and beautiful. I really believed Bess loved Porgy, or at the very least, loved how she could be with Porgy, and that he would accept her and forgive her at every turn. 

If you don’t know how Porgy and Bess ends, I can tell you it’s not particularly happy. But how could this story end any other way? The context of the tale tells the audience not to expect good things to last for Catfish Row residents. But it’s a testament to the skill of the entire cast that I would go back again and again.

Cincinnati Opera's Porgy and Bess has dates through July 28. More info/tickets:

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