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Theatre Sat Nov 22 2014

A Gorgeously Epic Porgy & Bess @ The Lyric Opera

 Porgy & Bess, photo by Todd Rosenberg
Eric Owens and Adina Aaron in Porgy & Bess. Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg.

Porgy & Bess, the George Gershwin opera that premiered in 1935, is currently in production at The Lyric Opera of Chicago for a 13-show run that opened Monday night. It is impossible to watch without considering its history; Gershwin drew inspiration for the opera while visiting Charleston, SC, and incorporated elements of southern black musical traditions into the piece. It was the first opera to feature an all-black cast, and it has weathered controversy ever since, with debate over its depiction of African-Americans, and was not generally accepted as legitimate opera until 1976. Nevertheless, it has entered the American cultural lexicon, with songs like "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" becoming American standards.

The Lyric Opera production, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Ward Stare, is gorgeously epic. As interpreted by bass-baritone Eric Owens, Porgy has a voice and a presence that are undeniable, and soprano Adina Aaron's portrayal of Bess is as heartbreaking as it is believable. With a supporting cast that includes Eric Greene as the menacing Crown, and Jermaine Smith as the charismatic Sportin' Life, the energy and pathos of the opera commands the attention of the audience for the entire three hours that it takes for the story to fully unfold.

Porgy & Bess, photo by Todd Rosenberg
Eric Greene, Adina Aaron, Bernard Holcomb, Jermaine Smith, and the supporting cast of Porgy & Bess. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

It is a peculiar fact of tragedies that we continue to watch them even though we know they can't possibly end well, and yet it seems to be this very fact that draws us back to them over and over again. (I can't count how many times I've watched West Side Story.) At a pivotal scene in Act II, Porgy urges Bess to go to a church picnic on Kittiwah Island without him, as his disability prevents him from getting on the boat with her. Despite knowing the story of Porgy and Bess, I found myself anxiously trying to communicate with Porgy, sending him telepathic messages like, "Don't let her go without you! Your disability isn't that bad -- just get a head start. Don't you know what's going to happen if you let Bess get on that boat by herself?" I mean, I know why he can't get on the boat -- in order for the plot to move forward -- but it still broke my heart to watch Porgy waving goodbye to his beloved.

At its core Porgy & Bess is a tragedy, but it does offer a glimmer of hope. In the final moments of the opera Porgy resolves to go to New York to find Bess, who has been spirited away by Sportin' Life in his absence. Porgy asks where Bess has gone, and fearing the worst, he asks if she's dead. "It's worse than that, Porgy," comes the answer, "she's in New York!" I can't help but wonder if that's a self-deprecating joke by Gershwin, a lifelong New Yorker. The music and story of Porgy & Bess stuck with me long after I'd left the opera house, and if you're lucky enough to catch this production, it will do the same for you.

Performances of Porgy & Bess run through Saturday, Dec. 20. Performance dates are Nov. 17, 19, Dec. 2, 5, 8, 13, 16 and 20 at 7:30pm; and Nov. 23, 26, 28, Dec. 11 and 18 at 2pm. Tickets and information at Lyric Opera.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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