PORGY in Los Angeles Opera's new production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which opened with two different casts Friday and Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is not a paraplegic in a goat cart, as the libretto stipulates and tradition expects.
Francesca Zambello, the director, has updated the action slightly from the early 20th century to the '40s. Catfish Row is still a depressed Charleston, S.C., cannery. African Americans are no less oppressed.
But Porgy walks. He has one good leg and a misshapen foot on the other. With his single crutch, he has grace and manliness to go along with his good heart. And that makes him a symbol in this fluid, athletic staging. It reminds us that "Porgy" need not be a problematic opera, even if our reaction to it sometimes is.
The central issue in presenting "Porgy" is freedom. How much -- musically, theatrically, racially -- is acceptable? Gershwin's famous numbers reside high on history's hit parade. Can you think of a piece of music that has had a wider variety of interpretations than "Summertime," which opens the opera?
Yet in the opera house, raw nerves are always exposed. The score cannot be tampered with. All cast members are expected to be black. And so presenting "Porgy" as a historical artifact is always the safest way to defuse its racial stereotypes.
Zambello's updating, which was created for the Washington National Opera, serves as at least a partial antidote to stereotyping. Catfish Row is a wreck, but not an ugly one, and Mark McCullough's gorgeous lighting gives Peter J. Davison's set the luminosity of a late 20th century artwork. There is almost continual movement, and some of it is wonderful. Small details on a stage teeming with activity are dramatically telling. Characters come to life. Many cliches are overcome. Fight scenes are violent.
John DeMain's conducting is an attraction. When he championed "Porgy" at the Houston Grand Opera 30 years ago, the music was all but owned by pop and jazz musicians and Broadway. Since then, the work has become standard opera house fare, if not so standard as "La Boheme."
As part of the de-problematizing of "Porgy," DeMain has removed all the musical fuss. Gershwin's dazzling range of styles has been criticized for being all over the map, with its incorporation of several forms of black music -- including gospel and even a striking 1935 example of proto-rap -- and his variations on Broadway song and traditional operatic ensembles. But Verdi has a pretty wide range as well, and nobody complains. It all sounds like Verdi. At the Pavilion, it all sounded like Gershwin. Nothing stood out. One style naturally flowed into another.
The singers, though, didn't always get the message. The first cast, Friday, proved overall the more theatrical; the second, Saturday, seemed the more musical. On Friday, Kevin Short, with his shaved head, was a tough, muscular, somewhat anachronistic Porgy.
His Bess was Morenike Fadayomi, a belter unsure of pitch but very sure of her sexuality. The villainous Crown in this production is no simple thug. Lester Lynch could have been almost likable with his insecure swagger. His viciousness seemed less willed than freakishly out of his control. Angela Simpson as Serena was a potent presence.
But Jermaine Smith's flashy song-and-dance Sportin' Life stole the show Friday. When he is on it, the stage is his: Your eye goes elsewhere at your own risk. Still, there is little danger of that given his crafty, look-at-me acrobatic dance routines and his ability to impart sly innuendo to nearly every finely articulated word and pitch. "It Ain't Necessarily So" became a one-man show.
Saturday's cast conveyed considerably less fire. Best by far was Alfred Walker's warm, charismatic, deeply felt and lyrically sung Porgy. Indira Mahajan's vocally secure Bess was more a misplaced Mimi. Terry Cook (Crown) and Victor Ryan Robertson (Sportin' Life) appeared squeezed into interpretations designed for others. Where Laquita Mitchell's Clara opened Friday's performance with a calm "Summertime," Alyson Cambridge sang hers for the rafters Saturday.
Much of what works best in Zambello's production is a tight ensemble with room for dozens of individualized characters who appeared both nights. Time stopped for Tammy Jenkins' transfixing hawking of luscious strawberries. The white characters -- undertaker, policeman, coroner and detective -- were properly unpleasant. Marvin Lowe, the weaselly lawyer Frazier, was very funny.
A lot of hands went into this production -- probably too many. The program credits assistant and associate directors. Denni Sayers' strong choreography was realized by Jennie Ford. The large production team did not take a bow -- Zambello did not stay in town for the performances. And Saturday's cast looked a lot less rehearsed than Friday's.
Underprepared singers and busy directors are hardly uncommon at major opera houses these days, but not quite to this extent. This "Porgy" is good enough, but the opera is too important not to be served as well as any other masterpiece of the lyric stage.
`Porgy and Bess'
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and May 15, 17, 18; 2 p.m. May 13, 16; 8 p.m. May 19; 1 p.m. May 20
Price: $20 to $220
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com