Porgy and Bess
By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Conducted by John Mauceri
Presented by the Washington National Opera
At the KenCen to April 3

The WNO is lobbying hard to reveal Porgy and Bess as something more than a repository for “Summertime,” and judging by the ratio of butts to seats last Saturday, word’s circulating that they’ve made a convincing case.

The story, adapted from the DuBose Heyward novel with significant contributions from the author, is that of a black wharfside community in South Carolina, where the cocaine-addicted, high-living Bess bounces back and forth between the crippled Porgy and the murderous Crown. The National Opera’s revival of its 2005 Porgy is heavy on the restoration—witness the presence of conductor John Mauceri, who helmed Decca’s effort to reconstruct the score from the original 1935 cast production. (In his program note, Mauceri claims that “Without question…this will be the closest to [the original] version anyone has heard on the stage since 1935.”)

Which is catnip for the historians. But does it move? The principal work of the piece is to elevate to grandiosity the plight of a forgotten community—and to elevate to opera the realm of popular song; it was a work that cost George Gershwin and, to a lesser extent, his brother Ira, no shortage of toil or years. The business of staging those ambitions is often as stilted and mannered as it is racially problematic.

Not so at the National Opera, where director Francesca Zambello has mustered a sweep to match that of the score. The leads—on this night, Eric Owens as Porgy and Morenike Fadayomi as the smoldering vamp he gets hooked on—deliver powerfully in both the dramatic and musical departments, and if Bess’ fatal chemistry with the ne’er-do-well Crown (Terry Cook) is stated rather than evoked, the excellent Jake and Clara (Eric Greene and Alyson Cambridge) prove that even a couple not in need of counseling can meet a tragic fate. Set designer Peter J. Davison‘s three-tiered, barracks-like Catfish Row, the white-owned fishery where much of the action unfolds, is all corrugated iron and prison-like walkways—a fittingly industrial crucible wherein the ensemble keeps things popping at every turn. (Of special note: Gwendolyn Brown as the matronly Maria, Samantha McElhaney as a strawberry vendor, and a bevy of little tykes who participate in picnics and funerals with equal aplomb.)

The result being that this undeniably academic exercise boasts a real pulse.