Mon 24 Nov, 2014
Tags: 3 1/2 STARS, Lyric Opera, Porgy and Bess
Porgy and Bess
By George Gershwin
Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
Most American musical theater fans are familiar with Porgy and Bess. It is believed by many to be the first truly American opera (it opened on Broadway in 1935) and was certainly the first to focus on African American (then called “Negro”) culture. In fact, composer George Gershwin felt so strongly about the cultural integrity of the work that he insisted that Porgy and Bess never be presented without an African American cast. This decision was also informed in no small part by his belief that classically trained opera singers could not do justice to the opera’s jazz idiom. Though successfully revived in 1942 and again in 1952 (when revisions to the production made it more an opera and less a stage musical), Porgy and Bess remained on the fringes of American theater culture until a landmark production by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976 brought the work full circle. With the full score of the piece restored, audiences experienced Porgy and Bess as the composer envisioned it for the first time since 1935 and its full potential as a cultural narrative and as a true opera was restored. This is the story audiences are experiencing in the current Lyric Opera of Chicago production, and despite the controversy that will always surround its relevancy to African American culture, Porgy and Bess remains a compelling piece of theater and a wonder of modern composition.
Based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 play Porgy, Gershwin’s folk opera chronicles Negro life on Catfish Row, (inspired by the Cabbage Row neighborhood in Heyward’s native Charleston, SC.) populated by crab fishermen, dockworkers, and street hustlers. The plot revolves around the hustler Crown, his lover Bess, and the crippled beggar Porgy. During a craps game, Crown kills a popular local man and abandons the drug-addicted Bess when he goes on the run from the local police. The boozy party girl, whose brazen behavior has not endeared her to the local religious ladies, takes shelter with the only person who will have her. Porgy, for his part, sees the good in Bess as he knows what it’s like to be judged on appearances. Bess cleans up, and eventually his neighbors’ respect and affection for Porgy begins to extend to his lady as well. Happy days for Porgy and Bess, as for most residents of Catfish Row, are unfortunately short-lived. Crown returns to claim his “property” in a brutal rape scene and Porgy exacts deadly revenge. Bess disappears, bound for her old life in New York, and as the final curtain falls Porgy prepares to follow her and bring her home.
Celebrated director Francesca Zambello, whose acclaimed productions of Porgy and Bess have graced the stages of the National Opera in Washington, The Los Angeles Opera and The San Francisco Opera, brings a cast of seasoned singers to the stage for this Lyric Opera of Chicago production. The women are, without exception, marvelous singers and actresses. From the first refrain of the iconic “Summertime” (soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clara) to the gospel mourning of widow Serena (soprano Karen Slack) to the hilarious in-your-face proclamations of matriarch Maria (contralto Gwendolyn Brown), the voices in the female roles are top-notch. And of course, there is Adina Aaron’s Bess, portrayed with a powerful combination of raunchy sexuality and bruised self-image. The men’s supporting roles don’t fare quite as well. Despite solid vocal performances, the male voices as a group don’t have the confidence and power to push excellent dramatic performances from Eric Greene as Crown and Norman Garrett as Jake over the top. Jermaine Smith does a good job of channeling Cab Calloway (the original Sportin’ Life, for whom the role was written) and Ryan Center alum Will Liverman creates a highly entertaining and humorous Lawyer Frazier. In the role of Porgy however, bass-baritone Eric Owens shows complete mastery of his character. Previous portrayals of the kind-hearted beggar (most recently the 2008-09 production at San Francisco Opera) have obviously given Owens the opportunity to delve deeply into Porgy’s character, and to make it his own. Those in the audience expecting just the handsome delivery of Porgy’s famous musical numbers (I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, Bess, You Is My Woman Now) are getting much more than they bargained for. Owen’s Porgy is a simple man struggling with complex moral issues and, for the first time in his life, experiencing love. He delivers a totally engaging and masterful performance.
Despite the entire package of top-notch production values, powerful dramatic performances, skillful and evocative choreography, excellent singing (by cast and the Lyric Opera Chorus); one must recognize that the biggest star of Porgy and Bess is its amazing score. With inspiration drawn from soaring Gospel choruses, soulful spirituals, and 1920′s roadhouse jazz, Gershwin’s music is uniquely vibrant and 100% American. Dynamic young conductor Ward Stare (a former principal trombonist with the Lyric Opera Orchestra) has a deep affinity for this music and for the players, his former colleagues. He is able to draw a phenomenal performance of Gershwin’s work from the Lyric Orchestra. It embodies a subtlety and style that many in the audience have never encountered in this music before. Who knew there was so much soul in that orchestra pit? Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current season continues to surprise and inspire us.
3 ½ STARS
(“Porgy and Bess,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through December 20th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)
Porgy and Bess production photos by Todd Rosenberg.