Porgy and Bess
Written by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin,
An unmissable American classic
|Lyric Opera of Chicago presents|
|Porgy and Bess|
Review by Clint May
So many times in opera (or however you want to classify this unique piece), the concept of having emotions for the characters themselves is usually an abstraction. What moves us is the quality of the art, while the archetypal paragons on stage remain relatively remote and cerebral by comparison. By the end of Lyric’s Porgy and Bess, I was flabbergasted by how moved I was not just by the stellar quality of the music itself but the humanity of those in the story. It’s a testament not just to the genius of the Gershwin’s, but the humanity evoked by this production. This is a multi-textured piece of Americana that brings us some of the most famously crafted songs of the 20th century and an aching portrayal of two people fitfully attempting a connection.
Long considered controversial for its portrayal of African American life, it’s telling that the main article in Lyric’s program begins by reminding us to view the work in its historical context. Lyric was slow to adopt this work, first producing it to great acclaim in 2008 but only after it’d proven itself viable elsewhere. Many critics throughout its 80 year history have dismissed/angrily derided/loved it or changed their minds quite decidedly at some later point. This brings to mind a discussion I had with an architect friend over what factors into a building being preserved and cherished or derided and destroyed. He responded that the first 40-50 years of a building’s life are the most important in determining what opinions will tip those scales. True to that form, it wasn’t until 40 years after its debut that a Houston Grand Opera production restored not just the entire work but brought it fitfully back into popular parlance, and it hasn’t left us since. Breakaway hits like “Summertime” (a regular on reality voice competitions), “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” have become a much admired part of the lexicon of the American songbook.
Brought 20 years forward in time, the 1950’s styled Catfish Row (styled off Cabbage Row of Charleston), Peter J. Davison’s set design brings to mind a low-rent tenement that crashed into a cell block. As those first few notes of that now famous aria drift out from Clara’s lullaby (Soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi) to rebuke with hope the desolation all about, the chills felt have nothing to do with the unseasonable cold.
Life on the skids is tough but not unbearable for the stoic Porgy (Bass-baritone Eric Owens). As he hobbles about on his crutch (not a pull cart as normally specified), he appears accepting of his lot in life as one of loneliness by definition. The ne’er-do-well Crown (Baritone Eric Greene) and “his” woman Bess (Soprano Adina Aaron) arrive and waste no time in stirring up trouble that results in a murder that puts Crown on the lam. When Porgy is the only one to show the much-derided Bess kindness, they form an unlikely bond of deep affection. In their own derelict Eden, the snake—aka Sportin’ Life (Tenor Jermaine Smith)—slithers ever at the edges to tempt while the past refuses to let things be. Can Bess escape her addiction to bad boys and drugs and let Porgy’s unwavering love into her heart?
Making her Lyric debut, Aaron is simply sensational with her vulnerable soprano and slinky moves. Her chemistry with Owens is palpable and believable as he makes Porgy into a sympathetic—and unlikely—hero. Director Francesca Zambello’s production has coaxed a humanism from everyone that makes this a deep well of feeling throughout. Navigating the complex mash up of European opera tradition and multiple American styles from blues to jazz to spiritual, Ward Stare conducts the orchestra with panache; Michael Black provides equal elan presiding over the chorus.
Porgy and Bess now seems a natural for Lyric six years after they first produced it and two years after the American Musical Theater Initiative was announced. As a work that can so easily be reimagined as a ‘pure’ musical (and the lines have always been blurry, just more so here), Porgy is divinely at home straddling genres and defying definition. Now rightly regarded as a great work of American art, the power of its lyrics and music transcend categorization and becomes a bridge element for the Lyric’s latest incarnation.
Porgy and Bess continues through December 20th at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map). Tickets are $69-$244, and are available by phone (312-322-2244) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information and a complete performance schedule at LyricOpera.org/Porgy. (Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Todd Rosenberg
Eric Owens (Porgy), Adina Aaron (Bess), Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life), Eric Greene (Crown), Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (Clara), Karen Slack (Serena), Norman Garrett (Jake), Gwendolyn Brown (Maria), Bernard Holcomb (Robbins), Chase Taylor (Mingo), Jermain Brown, Jr. (Crab Man), Will Liverman (Lawyer Frazier), Leah Dexter (Annie), Curtis Bannister (Peter), Veronica Chapman-Smith (Lily), Anthony P. McGlaun (Nelson), Earl Hazell (Jim), Kenneth Nichols (Undertaker), Samantha McElhaney (Strawberry Woman), John Lister (Detective), Brian McCaskill (Policeman), Dev Kennedy (Coroner)
behind the scenes
Francesca Zambello (director), Ward Stare (conductor), Peter J. Davison (set design), Paul Tazewell (costume design), Mark McCullough (lighting design), Michael Black (chorus master), Denni Sayers (choreographer), August Tye (ballet mistriss), Sarah Hatten (wigmaster and makeup design), Churck Coyl (fight director), Todd Rosenberg (photos)