BY WYNNE DELACOMA | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Battles still flare when opera companies present American musicals. But the fight over George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” seems to have been won. Labeled a “folk opera” at its 1935 premiere and initially presented in legitimate theaters, “Porgy” has found a warm welcome in American and European opera houses.
Lyric Opera first presented Gershwin’s work in 2008 in a handsome production directed by Francesca Zambello, and on Monday night that familiar story of a tattered Catfish Row in the 1950s returned to the Civic Opera House. With the superb bass-baritone Eric Owens leading a gifted cast, this Porgy clearly deserves its place in Lyric’s subscription season alongside any opera by Mozart or Strauss.
‘THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS’ Recommended When: Through Dec. 20 Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $39-$249 Info: (312) 827-560; lyricopera.org
Over the years producers have tinkered with the text of “Porgy” — the book and lyrics are credited to DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin — and Lyric’s official, if clunky, title for the work is “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” But the piece’s driving force is George Gershwin’s beguiling score that includes such hits as “Summertime,” “Plenty o’ Nuttin’, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
Lyric is working its way through Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, presenting one as a special event every spring with “Carousel” coming up in April. The company has figured out the difference between grand opera and musical theater, and with “Porgy” deftly moves away from operatic grandiloquence into the more intimate, conversational world of music theater.
Lyric is giving audiences an unparalelled glimpse of Eric Owens’ seemingly endless range. Last season he appeared as a mythical creature in Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the stern but loving father of a water sprite seduced by a fickle prince. In fall 2016 he begins a four-year trek through Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, singing for the first time the central role of Wotan, ruler of the gods, in Wagner’s four-opera epic. Listening to Owens’ rich, expressive bass-baritone is pleasure enough; in Act I of “Porgy,” his soft, regretful phrases conveyed the loneliness of a good-hearted man surrounded by women who pay him no mind. But Owens is also one of those singers who manage to take us inside his head. Burly and leaning on a crutch, he communicated Porgy’s joys and sorrow even in moments of silence.
Adina Aaron’s Bess had similar nuance. Her soprano voice, clear and strong on high notes, turned smoky in lower registers. In her lewd, sloppy dances with Crown, we felt the desperation of a junkie who knows better, which made her struggle to change her ways all the more heroic.
Jermaine Smith’s Sportin’ Life wasn’t especially charismatic, but the rest of the supporting cast was full of vivid life. Norman Garrett’s Jake and Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi’s Clara were a charming, vibrant young couple, and Eric Greene brought a powerful baritone and frighteningly thuggish swagger to Crown. After an overly brassy start, soprano Karen Slack found the human heart inside the Bible-thumping Serena. As the wily, wise Maria, contralto Gwendolyn Brown bossed the children and bore stoic witness to the adult pain around her.
Gershwin’s colorful score sparkled and surge under conductor Ward Stare’s directed, and Lyric’s supplemental chorus was a beautifully blended ensemble, quietly hopeful when singing the blues and bursting with buoyant energy on happier days.
Wynne Delacoma is a local freelance writer.