Alyson Cambridge as Bess in 'Porgy and Bess'. Photo: Julia Lynn
Alyson Cambridge as Bess in 'Porgy and Bess'. Photo: Julia Lynn © Julia Lynn

More than any of the characters, this new Porgy and Bess is about the city of Charleston, which after long neglect has taken a proprietary interest in the great American opera set within its borders. There has been just one prior production (in 1970) of this classic by the Gershwin brothers and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward; an earlier attempt to put it on during the segregated 1950s was nixed by the Gershwin estate. All of which makes this staging in the glamorous new Gaillard Center the first in the Spoleto Festival USA’s distinguished 40-year history.

The production, driven by Jonathan Green’s designs, imagines a time when the opera’s close-knit but struggling black community has attained a measure of urban belonging, although Green avoids indices suggesting that time is today. A Georgian brick building and a wooden house with a second-storey porch show that Catfish Row has been gentrified, and later they take on designs of west African origin, a sure indication that the community has made the locale its own.

Neither the designs’ bright colours nor Lenore Doxsee’s lighting do the drama about the match between the disabled beggar Porgy and the glamorous Bess any favours, but they don’t do it serious harm either. David Herskovits’s direction of principals and chorus, however, could use a stronger profile.

As Clara, Courtney Johnson established the evening’s high level of vocalism at the outset with a “Summertime” sung with rounded tone and a languid legato. Lester Lynch’s powerful baritone signified Porgy’s unexpected physical strength, although his singing was at times overly stentorian. Alyson Cambridge, singing opulently, was compelling visually and vocally as Bess, whose genuine love for Porgy is compromised by her loose morals; Cambridge was not always flattered by Annie Simon’s costumes, which also employed west African motifs.

Indra Thomas made stirring moments of Serena’s lament over her dead husband and her big prayer scene. Victor Ryan Robertson was engaging as the dope peddler Sportin’ Life, and Eric Greene was a burly Crown.

The conductor Stefan Asbury drew vibrant performances from the Festival Orchestra and the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir in this important achievement for the city.

To June 12,

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