Porgy and Bess at the Lyric

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which we caught at the Chicago Lyric Opera last Tuesday. Was it another one of those musical showcases that meandered the fine line between Broadway and Opera? And where, like Showboat which we also saw at the Lyric, half the singers were miked and half sang unamplified?

As it turns out, the singers sang unamplified, though some of the singers weren’t loud enough to fill up the 3,000-plus packed theater. S, who had watched Anna Bolena with me the prior night, asked at intermission – “Is it me or is the volume turned down tonight?” But Eric Owens brought plenty of soul to his Porgy. Loved his duet “Bess You is My Woman Now” with Adina Aaron, the troubled Bess. Other standout singers from the evening were Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi and Norman Garrett as the sweet couple Clara and Jake. Favorite scene of the evening was the hurricane scene with the specially picked African American majority chorus. The atmosphere was positively (no pun intended, not really) bristling with electricity.

Overall, really fantastic evening, and a fantastic way to end our current run of operatic performances in Chicago!

The Wall Street Journal’s review here:

When the Living Ain’t Easy
Lyric Opera of Chicago, celebrating its 60th anniversary season, is finishing up 2014 with a pair of imposingly scaled productions with stars to match: ‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Anna Bolena.’
By HEIDI WALESON
Updated Dec. 15, 2014 8:41 p.m. ET

Lyric Opera of Chicago, celebrating its 60th anniversary season, is finishing up 2014 with a pair of imposingly scaled productions with stars to match. Both stagings originated elsewhere. Francesca Zambello’s take on the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” began its journey in 2005 at the Washington National Opera; it has since visited several other companies, been aired on PBS and released on DVD. Unlike the stripped-down Broadway “Porgy” of 2012, Ms. Zambello’s production embraces the work as a grand opera. It is sung all the way through (only the interloping white policemen speak); the big orchestra, under the skilled direction of Ward Stare, is bold and brassy; and there’s a great deal of music, particularly choruses, that those familiar only with the piece through such hit tunes as “Summertime” have probably never heard.

The production is built around the tightly knit Catfish Row community of Charleston, S.C., and it doesn’t sugarcoat the darkness in these people’s lives. Peter J. Davison’s looming multilevel set is vaguely prisonlike, with corroded iron doors, girders and a catwalk, luridly lighted by Mark McCullough. It’s a big space, but crowded with people and constant activity. Religion and superstition coexist with drugs and poverty; murder and rape are only a hair-trigger away, and a hurricane can blow everything to pieces. The excellent chorus, prepared by Michael Black, comes together in joy—“Oh, I Can’t Sit Down” becomes a celebratory revival meeting dance—and in grief for the murdered Robbins and the drowned Jake and Clara. It admits the renegade, penitent Bess, and scatters like the wind when the police arrive. Ms. Zambello stages crowd scenes brilliantly—the craps game and the fights are fast-moving and full of detail. Many of the intimate moments, by contrast, tend to be unsubtle, with semaphoric gestures geared to read in a big house.

Eric Owens brings depth and complexity to the crippled beggar Porgy. He has a crutch rather than a goat cart, and he uses his size and the luxuriant weight of his bass-baritone to convey Porgy’s courage, menace and optimism, even though he is constantly being knocked down, figuratively and literally. Clipped lines made “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin” colloquial and theatrical rather than conventionally operatic; his killing of Crown was his assertion of himself as a man. Another big personality was Karen Slack as the devoutly Christian Serena, whose “My Man’s Gone Now” sounded as though she were transported by religious fervor.

Other key performers seemed to have been cast more for looks than voice. Adina Aaron was a skinny, twitchy Bess—as though years of rough living and too much happy dust had taken their toll—but her thin soprano couldn’t project the yearning woman underneath. Eric Greene was a tall, imposingly muscled Crown with a too-light baritone. Their confrontation on Kittiwah Island was violent but unconvincing. Jermaine Smith brought an exaggerated grotesqueness to the drug dealer Sportin’ Life. Gwendolyn Brown was imposing as the matriarch Maria, and Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi and Norman Garrett were sweetly youthful as the doomed couple Clara and Jake.

“Anna Bolena” could have used some of that activity. Kevin Newbury’s production, originally mounted at the Minnesota Opera as part of a cycle of Donizetti’s three operas about Tudor-era queens, was static and bare. Although Neil Patel’s set moved—walls and pillars dropped from an elaborately coffered ceiling, a canopied bed rotated to display a pair of thrones, a staircase rolled on and off—the pieces looked monumental and awkward, as if they had been blown up in size to fill a much larger stage. D.M. Wood’s lighting emphasized big shadows, and Jessica Jahn’s monochromatic costumes were dull. (Note to costume designers: Enough with the pristine white nightgowns for mad scenes.) The addition of a (nonsinging) child to be Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, felt like an unnecessary gimmick.

The singers, minimally directed, had to work hard to make an impact, which felt strange in an opera so rife with conflict and cruelty. Henry VIII, determined to get rid of Anne Boleyn so that he can marry her lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour, hatches a vicious plot that involves bringing Anne’s ex-suitor, Lord Richard Percy, to court, maneuvering her into the appearance of treason, and cynically using the judicial system to have her condemned to death.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky tore into the role of the despised and betrayed Anne as if her life depended on it. She has the volume, flexibility and personality to carry off big bel canto statements, and her culminating mad scene was riveting. However, her soprano has a steely timbral edge that is borderline abrasive. It works well when she has to cut through a Verdi orchestra, but it is disturbing in Donizetti, where the beauty of line is key.

With her opulent mezzo, Jamie Barton delivered on Jane’s complexities: She’s ambitious for the throne, but also wracked with guilt about Anne. The women’s Act II confrontation was a high point of the evening. Bass John Relyea conveyed Henry’s calculating viciousness and abusiveness. As Percy, Bryan Hymel sounded nasal and strained in Act I, but his tenor warmed up in Act II, and his pre-execution aria was affecting. Kelley O’Connor’s unusual dark timbre (she sounded like a countertenor) and androgynous appearance made for a piquant portrayal of Smeton, the court musician who secretly loves Anne. Rounding out the cast were Richard Ollarsaba, bringing a mellow baritone to Anne’s brother, Rochford, and John Irvin as Henry’s snakelike enabler Lord Hervey. Patrick Summers was the routine conductor, emphasizing solo moments rather than overall shape.

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