From the majesty of George Gershwin's 76-year-old opera to the 21st century technology employed to present it, there was a lot for Central Kentucky music lovers to anticipate in the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's opening night performance of Porgy and Bess.
The production of Gershwin's pioneering 1935 American folk opera, which runs Feb. 3-6 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, lives up to all those expectations and breaks new ground.
Set in the fictitious black village of Catfish Row, the opera explores African-American life in 1930s Charleston, S.C., via the frustrated romance between the physically disabled Porgy and the emotionally compromised Bess.
Technical precision, both in design and musical performance, as well as striking dramatic characterizations, elevates this production to the "grand" scale of Gershwin's original vision.
If the UK Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments' newfangled visual projection screen technology is the star of the show, it is one that is careful not to upstage other elements of the production.
Kudos to scenic designer Richard Kagey for shepherding the new technology into this production with creative restraint. While the spell of the high definition backdrops drew a few gasps of surprise from the audience, particularly during the picnic and hurricane scenes when the screens' cinematic muscles are most flexed, Kagey resists the temptation to sound every bell and whistle of the technology, instead fostering an organic relationship between other design and performance elements of the show.
Like musical director John Nardolillo's conducting of the UK Symphony Orchestra, Kagey's design works in fluid concert with the material, supporting the thrust of the show rather than competing with it. For instance, when Bess takes a moral U-turn and gives in to the lure of "happy dust" toward the show's emotionally troubling finale, the buildings of Catfish Row are suddenly washed in a sweep of deep amber light, mirroring Bess's internal sensation of being "high."
As Bess, Angelique Clay's soprano melded beautifully with Kenneth Overton's bass as Porgy, particularly in the emotionally tender duet Bess, You is My Woman Now.
While Clay and Overton showed their vocal prowess, it was their portrayal of the potent complexity of their characters' struggles which was most haunting after curtain call. Why is Bess so morally and emotionally malleable? Is she just "no count," as the other women of the community say? Or is she a tragic victim of herself and the times?
And then there is Porgy, dear Porgy, who, despite his crippled state maintains such admirable dignity. Is his propensity for love and forgiveness inspiring or foolish? Brave or pitiful?
Supporting cast members deftly weave their influence and interpretation of the couple's plight into the fabric of the show.
La'Shelle Allen's Maria, for instance, unabashedly tells it like it is, and Sabrina Elayne Carten's Serena lends a spiritual lens to the community's travails.
Director Lemuel Wade's careful orchestration of the 75-strong all-African American cast, with intricate, lively choreography and blocking, only adds to the largesse of the evening's overall experience.