By James L. Zychowicz
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, John DeMain (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago 29.11.2008 (JLZ)
Director – Francesca Zambello
Set Design – Peter J. Davison
Costumes – Paul Tazewell
Lighting – Mark McCullough
Choreography and Association Stage Director – Denni Sayers
Porgy – Gordon Hawkins
Bess – Morenike Radayoni
Crown – Lester Lynch
Clara – Laquita Mitchell
Sporting Life – Jermaine Smith
Jake – Eric Greene
Serena – Jonita Lattimore
Robbins – Barron Coleman
Maria – Maretta Simpson
After a number of years, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is back on the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production rented from Washington National Opera (Washington, D.C.) and designed by Francesca Zambello. This conception sets the work forward in time from being contemporaneous with its creation in the mid-1930s onward to the 1950s, as apparent from the costumes and, to a degree, from the kinds of interactions depicted between the black community and the white police and legal figures. The familiar story of the sometime jaded cripple Porgy falling in love with Bess, a woman of questionable virtue, who was formerly with Crown. Going into hiding after killing Seren’s husband, Crown fails to take Bess along, and she finds refuge with Porgy. While Porgy and Bess grow to love each other, Crown still feels as if Bess is his property, and the tension mounts until Porgy murders him. Yet when Porgy is taken away for questioning, Bess takes off for New York with Sporting Life, a low-life who will, no doubt lead her into more problems. The end of the work finds Porgy taking off to find Bess, and even in this fine production, his prospects of success seem poor, despite’s Porgy’s resilience.
Peter J. Davison’s vivid design works well in and serves the score nicely by allowing for appropriate spaces in which the can occur: this definitely helps to enhance those aspects of the work which are closer to musical theater than conventional opera. Without splitting hairs over distinctions between opera and musicals, the dramatic elements of Porgy and Bess can sometimes isolate the music from the action, and this is implicit in the division of the work into two parts, the first consisting of the overture, first act, and the first two scenes of the second act; the second comprising the last two scenes of Act II and the entire third act. This structure reinforces the tragic rape of Bess on Kittiwah Island and makes the production resemble more a traditional Broadway music, which usual divides into two acts.
As to the production itself, it is a vivid visualization on stage of Catfish Row as a two-story tenement, with doors and stairs accessible for various entrances and exits. It helps to define the community group whose spiritual leader is Maria, performed here by the Lyric veteran Marietta Simpson. (Simpson was part of the memorable production of Blitzstein’s Regina several years ago.) In Porgy and Bess Simpson demonstrated her always fine singing once again, but the drama also allowed audiences to appreciate her acting ability. A sympathetic character, he was most animated during the scene in which she confronts Sporting Life. Likewise, Jonita Lattimore, a voice familiar to Chicago audiences, not only for her work at Lyric, but also at other venues She brought the character of Serena to life convincingly, with her lament “My Man’s Gone Now” at the end of the first act which was particularly moving. Her vocal inflection brought out the emotional pitch of the number, which remains in this production more convincing than the somewhat obligatory spiritual-inspired chorus “Leavin’ for the Promised Land” which ends the act. “Oh, Doctor Jesus” at the end of the second act was, in Lattimore’s hands, memorable.
Of the principals, Gordon Hawkins is a seasoned Porgy, who has performed the role in various places, including the Bregenz Festival (under the direction of Götz Friedrich) and also in the premiere of Zambello’s staging at Washington National Opera. He knows the role well, and it was welcome to hear his nuanced “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” His duet with Bess, here sung by Morenike Fadayomi, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” was intimate and resonant. In fact, both performers contributed a welcome freshness this familiar number, with their lines intersecting nicely as they celebrated the newfound love. As Porgy, Hawkins navigated the stage well, since the production substitutes a crutch for the cart scripted for the character, and this modification gave him some extra mobility. This detail necessitated adjusting the text, but also added a prop to the staging, which contributed to the crucial scene in which Porgy battles Crown to the death. (While destroyed in the fight, it is remarkable that a replacement crutch appears in the next scene.)
Fadayomi is an equally experienced Bess, who also worked with Hawkins at Washington National Opera. A fine actress on stage, she allowed the sometimes brazen Bess to be a bit understated; her body language and eye contract showed the audience the sometimes difficult relationship she has with the community at Catfish Row. Her voice was sometimes lost in the enthusiasm of this production, but her reprise of Clara’s “Summertime” demonstrated her singing beauitfully. In this production, Bess the lapsed sinner seems doomed to repeat her mistakes, a touch that was convincing enough for some audience members to voice their disappointment as they were leaving the theater.
As Crown, the villain of the work. Lester Lynch made his character believable, and his resonant bass voice ranged through the hall. Audience members who attend later performances this season will find Lynch in the title role of Porgy, and they should enjoy his performance in a completely different. His menacing portrayal of Crown gave the necessary angry edge to the character, an element underscored by the physicality Lynch brings to the part. Likewise, Jermaine Smith was a three-dimensional Sporting Life, whose trouble-loving bent always drew in those near him. The penultimate number in the first half of this production “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” involved some fine interaction between Smith and the chorus. By bending of pitches and rhythms, he added an extra dimension to the sometimes familiar music. In the end, his persona as a drug dealer is strong enough to win Bess away from Catfish Row, even though his more memorable music was in the first part of the show. Other roles were nicely cast, with Laquita Mitchell singing of Clara — her finely pitched “Summertime” opening the first act. Depicting her husband Jake, Erice Greene demonstrated a polished, expressive voice that would be welcome in other roles.
For the chorus, some of the numbers worked well, with the chordal harmony moving with studied precision. In the contrapuntal passages however, the textures became, ambiguous at times, with words and phrases sometimes blurring until the texture resolved in a single word or syllable. The production was well served with the surcaps projected above the stage, so that the audience could follow the text throughout the performance. The chorus did well in the extended opening scene, in which Gershwin creates the atmosphere of Catfish Row. A kind of reflection of Puccini’s La bohème, their number helps to introduce the characters and staging, and the close attention of the audience was a tribute to Zambello’s success in this area. The presentation of the work in two parts, puts across a different aesthetic than when Porgy and Bess is present in three acts. Then, the second act ends with the plight of Porgy in question while in the present production, the emphasis shifts more strongly to Bess. This is not precisely in the score, but modern productions sometimes involve such shifts in dramatic structure.
At some point however questions do arise, perhaps as a result of the updating that is part of the production. Does Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess perpetuate stereotypes in paying undue attention to the references to cocaine and other drugs, sexual promiscuity, and dialect? At another level, is it the fault of the production if the portrayal of Bess seems so wayward that Porgy would be foolish even to think of following her to New York? Or is it best to consider Porgy and Bess as the product of its times, with affinities to some of the naturalistic dramas popular at the time? Such considerations point to understandings of the work as a whole, which differs from the appreciation of some of its popular numbers. Taken out of context, pieces like “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and others convey different meanings when heard apart from the entire score.Perhaps it is a measure of the success of this production that it raises questions that are important for understanding the place of these well-known piece of musical theater within American culture. With Zambello’s new production and Lyric’s fine presentation of it, audiences have an excellent opportunity to answer the questions for themselves.