Sheer, wondrous energy surges across the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage as the curtain rises on the Los Angeles Opera’s next-to-last offering of this up-and-down season, and it doesn’t abate until a very short three hours have passed. Forget about all the tinkered-with, reworked, abbreviated versions of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” that have struggled to make the case for this maligned yet adored American masterwork. This time around, conductor John DeMain and director Francesca Zambello deliver the work straight, close to uncut — and close to wonderful.
Designer Peter J. Davison has updated Catfish Row by a couple of decades into a rundown, skeletal five-story tenement, doors half off their hinges, with a creaking sliding door giving access to the sea. A shift in lighting converts the set to an even-more decrepit Kittiwah Island for the picnic scene, a ruined roller-coaster off in the distance.
Harder to fathom is the curious act curtain dominated by a split eyeball reminiscent of surrealistic movies from the time of the original “Porgy,” but not otherwise relevant.
The cast — the first of two sets of principals to be heard during the 11-performance run — is superb: Morenike Fadayomi stands out for her slinky, passionate Bess and her pure high tones; Angela Simpson breaks hearts with Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now”; Jermaine Smith steals the spotlight with his rubber-legged Sportin’ Life; and Kevin Short delivers a Porgy who’s a tower of tragic strength.
Surrounding their work is DeMain’s extraordinary orchestra, buttressed by William Vendice’s fine chorus. They bring to the fore the remarkable richness of Gershwin’s folkish musical settings, the quasi-spirituals and laments that give the opera its unique power. Truly impressive, too, is the hurricane scene, with orchestra, chorus and fragile scenery all contributing to the sense of genuine terror.
At such moments, lingering arguments as to whether “Porgy and Bess” belongs in the legitimate operatic galaxy can be readily laughed off the stage; this is the stuff of greatness, greatly delivered.