Porgy and Bess at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

By George Gershwin, DuBose & Dorothy Heyward, Porgy and Bess lyric opera
and Ira Gershwin

Opera in three acts

Conductor John DeMain

Stage Director Francesca Zambello

Choreographer Denni Sayers

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago

“There is ‘Porgy And Bess’ and then there is all the rest.” –Stephen Sondheim

Spectacular production of Gerswhin’s masterwork Porgy And Bess is once again a major artistic and musical achievement for the Lyric Opera of Chicago!

It was one of those very special nights that can only in happen live, onstage. Over three thousand five hundred people gather to witness an ambitious and thoroughly beautiful production of Gershwin’s masterpiece, the American Folk Opera  Porgy And Bess. For me, it was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve ever spent in the theatre, just like the production of this wonder piece I saw in 2008. The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s second production of Porgy And Bess ranks among the finest opera I’ve seen to date! It is sheer perfection!

Porgy and Bess at the lyric opera

The opera opened in 1935 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. It ran only 124 performances on Broadway. The theatre critics and opera critics panned the opera as too black, too folksy, and too morbid, proving that Porgy And Bess was innovative and ahead of its time. It took decades before it was accepted and recognized as a pure work of art and a major American modern opera. It became the only opera to ever win a Tony Award, and its most popular song “Summertime” has been recorded over 17,500 times!
Kudos to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for reviving this masterpiece. I can’t think of a finer, more universally appealing work to introduce people to the majesty of opera. If you can get a ticket, take your teens to see this compelling melodic and powerful folk opera. They’ll thank you for years to come.

George Gershwin researched the roots of Southern Black culture as he spent time on James Island with Gullah community of fishermen in South Carolina. This is where, with help from DuBose, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, George composed the diverse score for his opera. Porgy And Bess’ music is a blend of blues, jazz, and folk idioms with classical styles  and Jewish klezmer hints that emphatically underscores and heightens the emotions of the story. Porgy And Bess’ score is so complete and enticing that it could work effective as a music concert piece. But when you add the lyrics and recitative, you get a tight work of musical operatic  art.

Porgy and Bess

Filled with exquisitely realistic atmospheric setting in the courtyard of Catfish Row, we hear Clara (Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi) sing the haunting lullaby “Summertime” to her child. The men, including Clara’s husband Jake (Norman Garrett), the drug-dealer Sporting Life (the manic, rubber-legged Jermaine Smith) and the fishermen are playing craps. Jake shows his tender side with his lullaby to his child  “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” Enter the beggar Porgy (the  rich voiced Eric Owens), a cripple with a heart. He defends Bess (the golden voiced and charismatic Adina Aaron) from gossip. Porgy claims he isn’t soft on any woman.

Crown (Eric Greene) is drunk and is a sore loser in craps as he kills Robbins (Bernard Holconb) in a rage. Crown flies and leaves Bess to fend for herself. Only Porgy aids her. Robbins’ funeral introduces us to the spiritual and bluesy tones of the folks with “My Man’s Gone Now” sung by Serena (Karen Slack). Bess leads the mourners in the up-tempo spiritual “Leavin’ for the Promised Land”—a tune that exemplifies the deep-seated religious faith of these people.

Porgy and Bess

Act two finds Jake and the fishermen working their nets as Porgy compares his life to theirs as he leads the ensemble in the folksy, toe-tapping “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin”—one of the great folk tunes complete with a fine banjo work. Maria (Gwendolyn Brown) chases Sporting Life as he tries to sell her ‘happy dust’ (cocaine) with “I Hates Yo’ Struttin’ Style.” Later the folks travel to Kittiwak Island for a church picnic. Sporting Life tries once again to gives Bess happy dust and he offers her a trip to New York. She refuses the trip as Porgy chases him away. Bess and Porgy sing to their new found happiness in the stirring duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

During a religious sermon, Sporting Life interrupts with his own religion—doubt in the rousing gospel/jazz song “It Ain’t Necessarily So”—a rhythmic dance number that mocks the Bible. Crown stops Bess from leaving the island. Eventually she escapes but she becomes sick and dying. Serena sings a prayer song ‘Oh, Doctor Jesus’ to aid in Bess’ recovery. Bess recovers and sings to her love for the cripple in “I Loves You, Porgy”–a powerful love ballad.

Porgy and Bess

When a hurricane threatens the folks, they all gather in Clara’s room to pray and seek shelter. Crown enters and tries to take Bess away as he sings an anti-religious song “A Red-Headed Woman.” Clara sees that Jake’s boat is floundering and asks who’ll help her save Jake. Crown goes but Porgy refuses.

Act three opens after the storm as the women are crying for their lost men. Sporting Life taunts Bess. Crown returns and attempts to take Bess away but Porgy kills him in a knife fight. The police arrive and they take Porgy to identify Crown. Sporting Life convinces Porgy that if he looks directly as Crown, his wounds will start bleeding. Sporting Life also convinces Bess that Porgy will be held by the police for a longtime. Taking more dope, Bess sings “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”—she leaves with Sporting Life.

Porgy returns from jail to discover that Bess has gone to New York with sporting Life. He sings he a lament to her in ‘Oh, Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?’ he decides to leave Catfish Row forever and follow her to New York singing “Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way.” The opera ends as we realize that Porgy is a tragic figure who’ll probably never be reunited with Bess.

Porgy and Bess

Porgy And Bess is innovative musically using 1930’s jazz elements with Southern Black musical traditions together with folk roots from jubilees, praying songs, work songs, street cries to Jewish klezmer, traditional arias and recitatives. Gershwin uses leitmotifs to establish each character with a unique musical theme producing swaggering rhythms. His work is quite sophisticated as well as diverse in style. The blend of folk and grand operatic motifs gives the work its depth.

The show has true opera voices from bass baritones to tenors to mezzo-sopranos with a cast of world class singers completely at home with their characters. Adina Aaron’s Bess and Eric Owens’ Porgy produced an electrifying spark that ignites the opera. Eric Greene’s Crown effectively presents the evil brute while Jermaine Smith’s Sporting Life is the eerie devil figure. Porgy and Bess truthfully depicts difficulties of rural Southern Black life as it vividly portrays the drinking, drug use, gambling, and sexual attacks as part of life. It also depicts the raising spirit and religious fever of the community.We understand their frailty, their strength, and their humanity as we empathize with these simple people. We do all this to the  gorgeous  soothing melodic music of George Gershwin.

You can’t can leave Porgy And Bess without being mesmerized and enchanted by the characters and the infectious Gershwin score. This opera is a memorable experience. Don’t miss this special opera.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Date Reviewed: November 17, 2014

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

 For more info checkout the Porgy and Bess page at theatreinchicago.com

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker, Chicago, IL, call  312-827-5600, www.lyricopera.org, Tickets $32 – $185, 20 performances through December 20, 2014

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