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Gershwin's wonderful opera at last seen in Chicago
By Bill Gowen | Daily Herald Classical Music Credit

Baritone Gordon Hawkins and soprano Morenike Fadayomi portray the title characters in Lyric Opera of Chicago's debut production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

 

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Published: 11/19/2008 6:15 AM | Updated: 11/19/2008 6:33 AM

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"Porgy and Bess"

Where: Ardis Krainik Theatre, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive.

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 21, 29, Dec. 3, 5, 6, 9, 12, 15, 16 and 19; 2 p.m. Nov. 23, 26 and Dec. 18

Tickets: (312) 332-2244, Ext. 5600, or lyricopera.org.

One of the most eagerly anticipated Lyric Opera premieres took place Tuesday night with the opening of "Porgy and Bess," scheduled to run through Dec. 19.

George Gershwin's 1935 "folk opera," based on the novel by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, was originally produced for Broadway, although Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira conceived "Porgy and Bess" as grand opera, not a musical mounted in a tiny theater such as New York's Alvin, where it opened Oct. 10, 1935, after a tryout performance 10 days earlier in Boston. It ran for 124 performances, good but not great by Broadway standards.

George Gershwin died tragically young of a brain tumor in 1937, thus not seeing "Porgy and Bess" reach its full potential. A revival in the early 1950s starring William Warfield and budding diva Leontyne Price brought "Porgy and Bess" newfound international stature. That production's tour to Europe and throughout the United States included a visit to the Civic Opera House in 1952.

Now, at last, Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting this seminal American work in a recent production originating at Washington National Opera and also seen at the Los Angeles Opera. It's an extremely handsome production, with scenic designs by Peter J. Davison and costumes by Paul Tazewell. They have moved the original story (set in Charleston, South Carolina's "Catfish Row" waterfront tenements) from its original 1930s to the 1950s.

The conductor is John DeMain (Lyric Opera debut), who has been associated with "Porgy and Bess" for more than three decades. He conducted the 1977 Houston Grand Opera production that turned the opera world on its ear with tours to other cities and an award-winning recording.

Lyric Opera is using dual casts for the major roles because 14 performances over a month's time are vocally challenging for any opera singer. For Tuesday night's opening we heard soprano Morenike Fadayomi as Bess and Gordon Hawkins as Porgy, along with Lester Lynch as the unsavory stevedore Crown, with Lynch also appearing during the run as Porgy opposite the Bess of Lisa Daltrius. The gambler and drug dealer Sporting Life (who eventually lures Bess to live with him in New York) is being portrayed for all performances by tenor Jermaine Smith in a marvelously spirited performance.

This is an opera of great drama, modeled after the Italian verismo style that Gershwin admired so much. The story includes murders, a tragic hurricane and a presumed (offstage) sexual assault. But also, like the great Italian works, this is an opera of great tunes, none more familiar than "Summertime," sung in the opening of Act 1 by Clara as a lullaby to her baby, and reprised by Bess during a much more mournful interlude in Act 3.

The most memorable number is the powerful Puccini-like love duet between the title characters, "Bess, You is my Woman" in Act 2. Sporting Life's two showstoppers, "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York," are the most Gershwin-like with their heavy blues influence.

The chorus, prepared by Donald Nally, is spectacular throughout, with special praise due the picnic "revival meeting" on the island and the dramatic scene in which the Catfish Row residents cower from the fatal hurricane.

Then, it all comes down to slightly more than one minute of Gershwin genius: the music that closes the opera. Hawkins and the chorus join together for the crippled Porgy's "O Lawd, I'm on My Way," the audience sensing his quixotic walk from Charleston to New York to find Bess will fail. Yet the emotion expressed in this great anthem of hope will leave hardly a dry eye in the theater.

The ticket demand for "Porgy and Bess" has been so great that the Lyric announced Tuesday it has added a 14th performance, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16. Tickets in all price levels ($32-$185) are on sale. Call (312) 332-2244, ext. 5600, or visit lyricopera.org.