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In Review > North America

Porgy and Bess

Lyric Opera of Chicago

In Review Porgy hdl 215
Owens and Aaron, Porgy and Bess at Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Todd Rosenberg 2015

Porgy and Bess made a victorious return to Lyric Opera on November 17, in a splendid revival that demonstrated why Gershwin’s masterpiece is considered one of the great American artistic achievements.

As Porgy, Eric Owens turned in one of his finest performances at Lyric to date. His bass-baritone is intrinsically affecting, and he sang throughout with pointed expressivity and scrupulous attention to line. Bess can be a tricky assignment in terms of maintaining audience sympathy, especially when set beside such an appealing persona as Owens. Adina Aaron nailed the character in a winning Lyric debut. This Bess was graced with a poignant vulnerability beneath the woman’s brittle bravura, and she caressed the ear with exquisitely floated tones above the staff in her farewell to Porgy before the picnic and in her beautifully rendered reprise of “Summertime.” 

Baritone Eric Greene, fondly remembered for his sweet Jake in Lyric’s 2008 Porgy, here graduated to a solidly sung, terrifying portrait of the brutally sexual Crown. As Sportin’ Life, Jermaine Smith sleazed about the stage with practiced ease. He sang well, too, though at this stage of his long association with the role he might edit more judiciously the many interpretive fillips he applies to the vocal line. It was fun to hear the chorus imitate them, though. Karen Slack’s Serena ripped the audience’s hearts out in “My Man’s Gone Now,” and she accomplished that formidable glissando over two octaves beautifully. Gwendolyn Brown was a wonderfully earthy and vital Maria. “Summertime” was prettily sung by Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clara, and she was effectively partnered by Norman Garrett’s appealingly vocalized Jake. Standouts in the large ensemble included Will Liverman’s keenly characterized Lawyer Frazier and Jermaine Brown, Jr., as a Crab Man with a falsetto to reckon with. John Lister was the snarky Detective, Dev Kennedy the sympathetic Coroner.

The supplemental chorus assembled for the production did an excellent job and produced rounded, rock-solid sound up through the highest sopranos. The excruciatingly difficult passages in the wake scene — just a stone’s throw from Schoenberg — were superbly done. 

The familiar production by Francesca Zambello, with set designs by Peter J. Davison, lighting by Mark McCullough and gritty, earth-toned costumes by Paul Tazewell, continues to provide much pleasure. Zambello does not entirely mitigate the rather meandering quality of the work’s early scenes, but her vision produces some lovely stage imagery; the drowning of Clara and Jake, effected as they are held aloft by the chorus, is particularly moving.

A number of standard cuts were taken (in truth, an uncut Porgy can be an unwieldy affair, which Gershwin himself recognized in making quite a few excisions himself), but we were given the often-omitted buzzard song, as well as Maria’s delightful “I Hate Yo’ Struttin’ Style!” The score’s amalgam of jazz/blues influences with an essentially “classical” idiom can be challenging for conductors. Ward Stare’s leadership seemed a trifle foursquare in the opening passages of the Prelude, but his ability to weave a lushness of orchestral texture was soon gloriously apparent. The love duet was a sensuous aural wallow, while the violence of Crown’s death was chilling. The ovations in the final calls were deafening: this Porgy was a big win for Lyric. spacer 


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