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Chicago by John Olson

Porgy and Bess
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Also see John's review of Dublin Carol

Porgy and Bess
Morenike Fadayomi and
Gordon Hawkins

Surprisingly, Sweeney Todd—dubbed "A Musical Thriller"—made it into the repertoire of Lyric Opera of Chicago six years before Porgy and Bess, which, though it originated in a Broadway house, has always been labeled an opera. Could it be the greater mainstream appeal of Porgy's arias and the general popularity of its composer, George Gershwin, led it to be regarded as a less serious work than operas without such connections or even seen as a less serious effort than Sweeney Todd (which, let's admit, lacks a hit song as big as "Summertime")? No leading American opera company had performed it until the Houston Grand Opera production of 1976, and the Metropolitan Opera didn't get around to it until 1985.

Anyone tempted to chastise Lyric Opera for waiting another 23 years past the Met's landmark production should agree the company has atoned more than adequately with this brilliantly performed and designed production. In large measure, it's an importation of the Washington National Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello, again directed by Zambello and using the same design team and most of the same principals as her 2005 WNO production, which travelled to Los Angeles Opera in 2007.

This opera of African-American life in the early 20th century fits in and fills the massive Civic Opera House most comfortably. As the culmination of Gershwin's short but brilliant career that encompassed orchestral pieces for the concert hall as well as many of the century's most popular vocal tunes, the score deserves a hearing in a venue of this magnitude. The glory of Gershwin's orchestrally rich and melodic score is delivered in full detail by the Lyric Opera Orchestra and a chorus of what appears to be at least 50 voices as the denizens of the Charleston tenement called Catfish Row. Rather than attempt to popularize the piece for musical theater venues—where a reduced chorus and orchestra would likely be required—this is really the way to experience Porgy. I would even be willing to give up the sumptuous production values of Peter J. Davison's set, Paul Tazewell's costumes and Mark McCullough's lighting design to bring the orchestra up on stage for an even better listen to Gershwin's orchestrations.

With Porgy and Bess, Gershwin took his vocal composing to the same level of accomplishment he achieved with his orchestral pieces. Here, the principals sing them with full operatic gusto. Morenike Fadayomi creates a dramatically nuanced Bess—older, indeed well over the "thirty if she's a day" as the script states—battered, damaged and believably seeking the redemption Porgy offers. (Lisa Daltirus alternates in the role.) Gordon Hawkins touchingly communicates Porgy's sense of hope and fulfillment that Bess provides him. Vocally, his baritone lacks the volume of the other principals, but his vocal quality is worth listening a little closer to hear. Lester Lynch (who alternates with Hawkins as Porgy) has little subtlety as the villainous and threatening Crown, but he has vocal power to spare. (Terry Cook alternates as Crown.) Jermaine Smith is an agile and edgily comic Sportin' Life (at all performances).

"Summertime" is delivered hauntingly by Laquita Mitchell, while Jonita Lattimore gives a full operatic expression of grief to "My Man's Gone Now." Marietta Simpson is a charming and amusing Maria, the comically dominating matriarch of Catfish Row. She has fun threatening Sportin' Life with "I Hates Yo' Struttin' Style," an aria I don't remember from previous productions I've seen. The handsome Eric Green is a likeable and upstanding Jake, delivering "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" with confidence.

Zambello keeps the story and characters in clear focus and creates a sense of community among the residents of Charleston's Catfish Row. In this opera the songs frequently are truer extensions of the drama than in Gershwin's musical comedies, and Zambello's cast earns all the emotions. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is a particularly satisfying moment in the way it shows how much Porgy and Bess need each other. Zambello and the design team also impressively complement the intensity of Gershwin's music in times of great sorrow and physical danger. During the hurricane that threatens the fishermen and Clara, the ensemble is huddled together in a small room, wind battering the building and lightning striking in the distance. Then, Gershwin follows up in the next scene, after the storm, with upbeat music that demonstrates the sheer resilience of the community despite its tragedies.

Though the lyrics are generally easy to hear, the use of supertitles frequently helps us catch lyrics in some of the sections sung faster or with overlapping vocals, allowing us to better appreciate the work of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. It probably helps the clarity of the storytelling as well.

Davison's Catfish Row set is an impressionistic copper-colored grid of tattered squares that suggests the rundown tenement. The first two levels use sliding doors for the individual apartments that in places open and close simultaneously as residents retreat to avoid police, storms and murderers. The set transforms into a massive boat dock on Kittiwah Island for the short but crucial second scene of act two. McCullough's lighting design, in addition to effectively depicting storms and environmental lighting, adds to the drama by using harsher light to suggest the more dangerous world outside the insularity of Catfish Row. The cast is costumed impressively in the colorful period designs by Paul Tazewell.

In the world of opera, the music is king. With Porgy and Bess, that's how it should be and how it is in this production. Even so, Lyric Opera and Ms. Zambello make the case for it as a moving story and enduring work of art on dramatic and poetic levels as well.

Porgy and Bess will be performed through December 19, 2008. For performance dates/times, ticket availability and to order, visit www.lyricopera.org. As of this writing, best seats were available for the performance added on Tuesday, December 16th.


Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago


-- John Olson



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