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‘Porgy and Bess’ at the Lyric Opera: From plenty of nuttin’, a masterpiece rises on Catfish Row

Submitted by on Nov 19, 2014 – 4:50 pm

Porgy (Eric Owens) comforts Bess (Adina Aaron) in Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess.' (Todd Rosenberg)Review: “Porgy and Bess.” Music by George Gershwin; libretto by Ira Gershwin, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through Dec. 20. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The Lyric Opera’s revival of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” is a thing of beauty not to be missed. More than that, it’s a ringing affirmation of this iconic American stage work as a great opera.

That certification surely begins with the two mesmerizing singers who head Lyric’s splendid cast. Bass-baritone Eric Owens empowers Porgy with a voice larger than life yet scales this poor, crippled, yearning character to the credible proportions of a man. His woman, in a fragile union forged from convenience and necessity, is soprano Adina Aaron’s lithe and sexy Bess, vulnerable and gorgeously voiced.

A little 'happy dust' keeps Bess (Adina Aaron) in the thrall of Sportin' Life (Jermaine Smith). (Todd Rosenberg)Yet they are but two faces, two fraught stories, in a teeming Catfish Row community filled with arresting personalities that director Francesca Zambello manages to draw out singly or in pairs to create a society of real people who work, scrimp, play, suffer and celebrate. It is a magical tableau of the human condition in all its spiritual strength, frailty and resilience.

First seen at the Lyric in the 2008-09 season, the eye-popping set designed by Peter J. Davison embraces the breadth of the stage and soars above it, a dense village of habitations where doors are usually open in welcoming kindness but can also be slammed shut against the stained likes of wanton Bess. Until forgiveness and generosity prevail and this fallen soul is raised up and into the arms of folks who discover her better qualities. The conviction of this communal change of heart, and the enveloping fashion in which it occurs, is a signal feature of Zambello’s sensitive and finely detailed work.

Those same qualities of natural pacing and emotional empathy also apply to the musical arc constructed by conductor Ward Stare, whose apt tempos and artful points of dramatic emphasis contribute to an unfaltering sense of continuity. In no small part, this “Porgy and Bess” is so satisfying because it is as seamless as it is vibrant and emotionally true.

The terrifying Crown (Eric Greene) seems to hold a spell over Bess (Adina Aaron). (Todd Rosenberg)Which brings us to baritone Eric Greene’s fearsome Crown, that wild force of nature who both terrifies Bess and enchants her. In the tall, well-muscled Greene, we see a Crown who is a man among men – willful, dangerous and uncontrollable, but also thrilling. Not unlike Don Giovanni. And Greene matched his imposing presence with burnished vocal prowess – notably in “Red-Headed Woman,” his acerbic retort to the community’s collective condemnation.

There’s a village full of well-schooled voices here. South African soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, as Clara, immediately set the tone with her silvery turn through the lullaby “Summertime,” and soprano Karen Slack, as Serena, lit up the house with her gospel-infused prayer over the languishing Bess, “Oh, Doctor Jesus.” High-spirited humor is never far away, and contralto Gwendolyn Brown, as the village matriarch Maria, brings the house down with her riotously severe dressing down of the town dandy and dope pusher Sportin’ Life, “I Hates Yo’ Struttin’ Style.”

But from below the footlights, Jermaine Smith’s agile, impudent, even venomous Sportin’ Life, an ever-ready source of “happy dust” for the likes of Bess, is a struttin’ delight. Playing fast and loose with the irreverent show-stopper “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Smith, the chorus and conductor Stare turn this mocking number into something close to Vaudeville comedy. It’s somewhere between sung and recited – and, allowing that considerable license, very funny.

The crippled Porgy (Eric Owens) struggles to be the man for Bess (Adina Aaron). (Todd Rosenberg)In the end, of course, “Porgy and Bess” comes down to those improbable lovers, thrown together by circumstance only to be separated again by reality as Bess understands the concept. And yet one feels very much in the presence of true lovers as Aaron delivers a heart-felt “I Loves You, Porgy” and Owens’ proud protector of this beauty-in-need declares ardently: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Owens also transfigures one of the show’s greatest hits, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” into an exultant anthem-cum-aria.

It isn’t the Lyric’s regular chorus that makes up the black community of Catfish Row, but the populace on hand dispatches its large assignment with an ensemble polish matched by the choristers appealing individuality as townsfolk. It is, of course, the familiar Lyric Orchestra in the pit and it imbues Gershwin’s bluesy score with the hearty, homey flavors of soul food.

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Bess (Adina Aaron) struts her stuff with the Catfish Row townsfolk. (Todd Rosenberg)

At the church picnic, Sportin' Life (Jermaine Smith) explains that 'It ain't necessarily so.' (Todd Rosenberg)

The townsfolk of Catfish Row on the Lyric Opera set designed by Peter J. Davison. (Todd Rosenberg)

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