Lyric Opera has plenty of something with a moving, vocally resplendent “Porgy and Bess”

November 20, 2014
Eric Owens and Adina Aaron star in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Eric Owens and Adina Aaron star in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

If George Gershwin has lived just five years more, what riches might we have?

When the American composer died of a brain tumor at age 38, his opera Porgy and Bess had flopped on Broadway just two years earlier. Many of its songs soon became standards, yet the 1935 opera remained a curio for decades, more talked about than produced or seen. John DeMain’s Houston Grand Opera production (and subsequent recording) in 1976 helped to raise awareness of the work, but progress was slow, and the Metropolitan Opera didn’t stage Porgy until 1985. Lyric Opera of Chicago brought forth its belated company debut of Porgy and Bess in 2009, and has not mounted any American work since.

Still, one can never hear our first great national opera often enough. Porgy and Bess was revived Monday night at the Civic Opera House in the same Francesca Zambello staging seen five years ago. Yet Monday’s compelling and resplendently sung performance in most ways improved on the 2009 production.

Gershwin’s opera seems like an easy populist programming choice, yet it wasn’t that many years ago that a staged production of Porgy and Bess was less than a sometime thing. The opera has gone from a controversial rarity to edging its way into the regular repertory in record time–even becoming box-office pay-dirt, as one of the few operas that, like Carmen and Madama Butterfly, can draw large audiences far beyond the subscription faithful. Zambello’s well-traveled production has played a large part in the widespread revival of Porgy and Bess, and, for that, the director deserves enormous credit.

Its hard to overstate the significance of Gershwin’s achievement in a work whose free hybrid of Broadway and the opera house baffled 1930s audiences. The many inimitable song-arias kept the music alive during its decades in the shadows, Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward’s lyrics perfectly wrapping around George Gershwin’s music.

But the seamless ease and finesse in which Gershwin blends the vernacular of popular song, blues, gospel, jazz and Broadway with the rigors of operatic form remains remarkable. The composer’s handling of the multiple vocal lines in the Hurricane scene, which builds to a climax of astounding contrapuntal complexity is still jaw-dropping eighty years later.

As with all great art, it’s also the universality of the opera’s themes that endures, as well as Gershwin’s timeless music. The 1920s milieu of the impoverished black residents of Catfish Row is the setting for the tale of the crippled junk man Porgy who gets one chance for love with the addicted fallen woman Bess. More broadly, the opera sounds eternal themes of community, love, devotion, redemption, and hope when all seems lost.

Zambello’s fluent production take some cuts and liberties with both the score and the staging (though far fewer than the recent, sanitized Broadway version). It hurts to lose the original instrumental opening of Jazzbo Brown’s killer blues-piano solo. And while one can understand sacrificing Porgy’s goat cart, somehow his climactic cry of “Bring my crutch!” doesn’t quite have the same effect as “Bring my goat!”

Yet most of Zambello’s tweaks are sound ones, musically and dramatically, and the action moves quickly with a single intermission splitting the three acts in the middle of Act II. The production also restores some wonderful, traditionally cut items, like the “Buzzard song” and “I hates yo’ struttin’ style.”

Peter J. Davison’s towering unit set has worn less well, the five-story rusted steel structure looking more like an abandoned Akron auto plant than a poor coastal community in the old South. While it’s functional enough for the fast-moving action, the grim tenement-like design provides zero Charleston atmosphere, much less Kittiwah Island in Act 2. Mark McCullough’s imaginative lighting does much to ameliorate the static visuals.

With his vast voice and burly physique, Eric Owens was born to play the role of Porgy. Walking with a convincing heavy limp, Owens brings a dignity and natural empathy to the gentle man who sees the incipient good in the outcast Bess. Owens, as Porgy, says, “When God made a cripple, he mean him to be lonely,” and we really feel he has lived it.

Vocally, Owens owns the role, delivering about the best-sung Porgy one is ever likely to hear in a live production. He is able to get his huge bass-baritone around the twisty lines of “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” with surprising agility. Yet he scaled his voice down artfully, bringing tenderness to the love duets and blending gracefully with Adina Aaron in “Bess, you is my woman now.” In the final scene, Owens is both uplifting and heart-breaking as he refuses to give up, departing Catfish Row to look for his Bess in New York.

As Bess, the bad girl who is humanized by the gentle Porgy, Adina Aaron made a most impressive Chicago debut. Slender and sexy, it’s easy to see how she could turn men’s heads in Catfish Row, even with the red wig.

Early on Aaron seemed too overcaffeinated in her acting, overdoing Bess’s drunken staggering around, something Zambello should have reined in. Yet her portrayal grew in assurance and depth as the story unfolded and the penitent Bess is drawn to Porgy. She also made manifest Bess’s more visceral physical bond with the brutish Crown as well as her affection for the older, crippled Porgy.

Vocally, Aaron’s light soprano has a bit of a wobble yet she sang with both gospel fervor (“Oh, the train is at the station’) and affecting sensitivity (“I loves you, Porgy.”). Let’s hope Lyric invites this talented singer back soon.

Promoted from the role of Jake in Lyric’s 2009 production, Eric Greene made a worthy villain as Crown. Greene’s middleweight baritone was less imposing than his physical presence, yet he proved a threatening and dangerous rival as Bess’s alpha male lover.

The sole weak link among the principals was Jermaine Smith, who reprised his Sportin’ Life from Lyric’s previous staging. The tenor has finely honed all the oily, serpentine moves of the “happy dust”-peddling Mephistopheles, yet his voice is even thinner than previously. To have his two showpiece numbers (“It ain’t necessarily so” and “There’s a boat dat’s leaving soon for New York”) more spoken than sung–even richly in character–was a disappointment.

The large supporting cast was filled out with distinction.

Ryan Opera Center member Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi made her company debut as Clara, opening the evening with a lovely, heartfelt rendering of “Summertime,” that eased us into the Catfish Row milieu. Norman Garrett was a hearty presence as her husband Jake, delivering an energetic “A woman is a sometime thing.”

Karen Slack’s pure-toned soprano suited the religious Serena, and she provided a highlight of the evening with a powerful “My man’s gone now.” As the substantial matriarch Maria, Gwendolyn Brown delivered a feisty take-down of Sportin’ Life with “I hates yo’ struttin’ style.”

It’s not often that the tiny role of the Crab Man gets a spontaneous round of applause, yet Jermaine Brown Jr’s high tenor and yelped high note were delightful in his brief moment. Will Liverman had a fine comic turn as the shyster Lawyer Frazier, who attempts to sell Porgy a divorce for the unmarried Bess. Curtis Bannister proved credible as the elderly Peter, as did Bernard Holcomb as the ill-fated Robbins. Kenneth Nichols made a sympathetic undertaker, and John Lister was aptly loud and odious as the bullying Detective.

Ward Stare’s conducting centered on an all-purpose bland efficiency. How can one conduct such a richly emotional score as this with so little feeling or intensity? The big dramatic moments felt a size too small and there was little musical detailing or nuance. The Lyric Opera Orchestra performed with characteristic gleam and professionalism but one could almost hear them chafing under Stare’s direction. When you can’t hear the banjo in “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” we have a problem, Houston.

Michael Black drew a robust yet scrupulously blended sound from the all African-American chorus assembled especially for this show. The Catfish Row community is a major component of Porgy and Bess and has some of the best music, and the singers rose to the challenge with terrific ensemble vocalism, not least in the hurricane and funeral scenes.

Porgy and Bess runs through December 20.; 312-827-5600.

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