The George Gershwin opera starts off with the melodious opening lines we know so well: “Summertime/and the livin is easy/fish are jumping/and the cotton is high.” We see a woman singing on her porch to her cradled baby as she sways her hips. At first, we would think this is a story about the easy life, about success, about happiness. It is anything but.
The opera Porgy and Bess tells a sad tale indeed. The people are immersed in poverty, living in a world dominated by political and social injustice. The decor does its work and the lighting of weak maroons and tired greys adds to a sense of desperation and weariness. The cast is dressed in quintessential ‘poor’ clothing: rags, straw hats and the old, tattered, good Sunday suit.
Set in the United States, the narrative takes us back to cotton-picking times where black folk are discriminated against and where societal justice is more theory than reality. We are set in Catfish Row, a derelict neighbourhood where “happy dust” (dope) and hard-liquor qualify as the only highlights of a Saturday evening. The morals of the church (think barn-raising cries of “Hallelujah”) are constantly pitted against people who have been cast aside as outsiders — such as Bess.
Bess is sassy, beautiful, and ready to drink any man under the table. The Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman outdoes herself playing Bess, strutting her stuff in Act I dressed in an eye-popping red dress with matching shoes. Close on her heels is her “man”: the manipulative, muscular, and powerful Crown. He is also a heavy drinker and gets thoroughly plastered by the end of Act I, where he kills a man without even really realising it. All hell breaks loose — Crown must flee for his safety and Bess is left to her own devices. Since she is a “no-good woman,” every door is shut in her face — except Porgy’s,
Porgy is a beggar and a cripple and is portrayed by Kenneth Overton, who expresses the physical handicaps with exuberant activity onstage. Here we see two uncommon outcasts who are brought together: a beautiful, seductive black woman and a crippled, kind man. They begin to fall in love. Bess swears off her past life of liquor and dope. Hope springs eternal.
But by Scene II of Act II, troubles lurk. While Porgy and Bess are swearing eternal love to each other, the townspeople of Catfish Row are getting ready for a picnic on Kittiwah Island. Although reluctant, Bess agrees to leave Porgy’s side for a time and attend the picnic. On the island, we learn more about Sportin’ Life, a dandy and cocaine and alcohol distributor. He raises his questions about the Bible with some jokes thrown in, and all’s well until the picnickers grab their food and head back home. Bess is the last to dust her dress off, which is when she stumbles across a very angry Crown. In this gut-wrenching scene, we see Bess hemmed against Crown whose huge physical presence dominates the stage. The understanding is clear: Bess is Crown’s woman, and she will do whatever he demands. In this case, the demands are sexual.
Cut to the next scene where Bess, delusional, is lying in bed. A worried Porgy asks Serena, a neighbour, to pray over Bess, who soon recovers. The next aria sung between the lovers is particularly moving as Bess vows “I love you Porgy, I love you so” while Porgy promises to protect his woman from Crown.
It could have ended there, a neat ending to a potentially menacing story. But Gershwin goes further, highlighting the darkness of humanity.
All in all, this production of Porgy and Bess has it all: the appropriate slang and attitude, the drinking and gambling, the husband-and-wife dynamics. We believe in Porgy’s anguish when the love of his life leaves him. We feel for Bess when she stumbles across the stage as an outcast. We mourn the lives of people taken too early. With Wayne Marshall as the orchestra conductor and Lemuel Wade as stage director, this all-black cast opera cannot go wrong.
Porgy and Bess runs until Feb. 3 at Place des Arts. For more information, visit operademontreal.com
Photos by Yves Renaud