What a cast! Anyone who harbors doubts that we have a plentitude of African-American opera singers with the pipes and artistry to triumph in leading roles in the world’s great houses would have had their belief challenged by the stunning line-up for Seattle Opera’s opening night production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Headlined by the towering Mary Elizabeth Williams, who invested Serena’s show-stopping “My Man’s Gone Now” with such power, passion and beauty that she could just has easily have been singing one of Verdi’s Leonoras at La Scala or The Met, it was a cast with no weak links.

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Serena) © Philip Newton
Mary Elizabeth Williams (Serena)
© Philip Newton

Not only did Seattle Opera debutante Brandie Sutton cap Clara’s gorgeous “Summertime” at the opera’s start with a perfectly floated high B, but she artfully darkened her delivery and reined in her vibrato during the aria’s tragic reprise. Angel Blue, who has deservedly graduated to the role of Bess after playing Clara in Seattle (2011) and San Francisco (2009), may have been one notch lower than Williams in volume, but the beauty, security, and sincerity of her voice, and her near-ideal physical appearance explained why both Mimìand Musetta are hers at The Met.

The male leads were equally gifted and ideally cast. Save for an inability to swing on “I Got Plenty ‘o Nuttin’,” Alfred Walker created a most sympathetic Porgy whose beauty of voice and purity of spirit were inspiring. Lester Lynch was an ideal Crown who mated sneering aggression and naked violence with vibrant voice. Jermaine Smith, who has made something of a cottage industry out of the role of Sportin’ Life, was alternately hilarious, ingratiating, and repulsively slimy. Dancing his way in and out of the action, and faking his split with almost as much artfulness as Richard Tauber faked a high C, he was the most enjoyable drug dealer and con man one would ever hope to meet (preferably from the safety of the audience.) Towering Derrick Parker sang the smaller role of Jake with strength and beauty – every note was a pleasure.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) © Philip Newton
Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy)
© Philip Newton

It would have been one thing if these artists had simply sung or spoken their lines superbly. Thanks to debuting stage director Garnett Bruce, however, they also acted up a storm. Granted, Peter J Davison’s set design for Seattle’s mounting of the Francesca Zambello production that has also aired at both Glyndebourne and San Francisco Opera, may depart in appearance from the actual Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina where DuBose and Dorothy Heyward set the novel upon which the opera is based. But Seattle’s cast acted with a communal unity of spirit that suggested that they not only actually lived there, in close proximity one to the other, but also knew how to come together in times of tragedy or threat from the white man.

Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life) and ensemble © Philip Newton
Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life) and ensemble
© Philip Newton

If Porgy and Bess is often classified as “the” American opera of the 20th century, it is undoubtedly more for its fast-paced succession of unforgettable tunes than for dramatic coherence. Perhaps music and action melded more organically at the opera’s out-of-town Boston tryout, before its producers and director Rouben Mamoulian insisted on cutting its Wagnerian length down to a more digestible Broadway package. (Seattle’s performance lasted a little over three hours, including only one intermission.) But in the 1935 Broadway version, which Seattle Opera presented with the addition of “Maria’s rap” (cut in 1935) but without the “Lawyer Frazier” scene that made it to New York, there are too many abrupt transitions in music and action to avoid the feeling that the opera is a patchwork quilt in which hit tunes took priority over plausibility.

<i>Porgy and Bess</i> © Philip Newton
Porgy and Bess
© Philip Newton

Perhaps, had conductor John DeMain allowed a little more space between scenes and arias, the vehicle might have flowed without hitting so many speed bumps that left me a bit dazed. (Does anyone really believe that Porgy simply picked himself up as best he could after Bess’s departure and, in this production, hobbled optimistically to New York?) As it was, the pace seemed very Broadway, as in we cannot, under any circumstances, allow a pause. DeMain may have Gershwin’s jazz-tinged idiom down pat, but there were times when more space, e.g. in “I Love’s You, Porgy,” would have allowed for more emotional expression.

Regardless, the level of talent on the stage of Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall was exceptional, and Gershwin’s music as endearing as ever. Few who see the production will awake the next day without many of its unforgettable memories still resounding in their heads.