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Gershwin Masterpiece Makes Lyric Opera History

Lyric Opera of Chicago
11/18/2008 -  and November 21, 23, 26 29, December 3, 5, 6, 9, 12, 15, 16, 18, 19
George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
Gordon Hawkins (Porgy)/Lester Lynch (Crown, and Porgy, Nov. 23, Dec. 5, 12, 18), Morenike Fadayomi (Bess)/Lisa Daltirus (Nov. 23, Dec. 5, 12, 18), Terry Cook (Crown, Nov. 23, Dec. 5, 12, 18), Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life), Jonita Lattimore (Serena), Laquita Mitchell (Clara), Marietta Simpson (Maria), Eric Greene (Jake), Barron Coleman (Robbins), Larry Hylton (Mingo), Kenneth Alston (Crab Man), Daniel Billings (Lawyer Frazier), Jeanette Blakeney (Annie), Veronica Chapman-Smith (Lily), Cheryl Warfield (Strawberry Woman), Michael Bragg (Peter), Earl Hazell (Nelson), Justin Lee Miller (Jim), Darren K. Stokes (Undertaker), Danny Goldring (Detective), David Darlow (Coroner), Chuck Coyl (Policeman; Fight Director)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Nally (chorus master), John DeMain (conductor)/Kelly Kuo (conductor, Dec. 5, 6)
Mark McCullough (lighting designer), Paul Tazewell (costume designer), Peter J. Davison (set designer), Francesca Zambello (stage director)

(© Dan Rest)

Lyric Opera’s new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is making history, literally. A press release dated November 18th noted that even before its first performance, the production had sold the most tickets in the fifty-four year history of the company. With a cast of talented singers that match their musical talents with dynamic stage presences, it’s no wonder that tickets are going fast. Opening night was abuzz with anticipation of the production originally created for Washington National Opera. Add in the fact that nearly all soloists were making their debuts at Lyric, and you have the makings for a nearly unforgettable night.

The buzz in the air still couldn’t have prepared Lyric’s audience for the powerful performance of dramatic baritone Gordon Hawkins as Porgy, who was making his house debut. While the role is better suited for a bass-baritone than a singer accustomed to Verdi, Hawkins made it work. His voice is dark hued and breathy, but, except for the lowest of Porgy’s tessitura, he had little trouble piercing through Gershwin’s at times dense orchestration. His top was incredibly secure, notably during Porgy’s ditty “I got plenty o’ nuttin’.” No other performer commanded the stage more than Hawkins. He limped around believably, had gut wrenching moments when, stripped of his crutch, he lay abandoned and immobile on the floor, and his desperation in the final scene when he discovers Bess has left for New York was one of the most powerful scenes of the entire night. His performance shows the fruits of not only vocal labor, but introspection—Porgy is a difficult character to portray, with the singer needing to display extremes of pride, humility, love, compassion, vulnerability, happiness, and pure rage within a very short time period. Hawkins pulls it off believably and passionately without sacrificing musicality.

His Bess, soprano Morenike Fadayomi, at times left something to be desired. Her stage presence was outstanding, as she let herself be taken over by the ‘happy dust’ of the drug dealer Sportin’ Life and seemed to conform her body to that of each man that crossed her romantic path.Yet, despite this dynamic presence, Fadayomi (who was also making her house debut) had a sloppy vocal presentation. Her diction of the Gershwins’ libretto was often hard to understand. It seems that her native British accent simply cannot conform to the southern, African-American inflection needed for the work. Whereas all her colleagues sang clearly enough as to be understood without needing to view the surtitles, Fadayomi’s pronunciation often had the sold-out Lyric Opera crowd cocking their heads up to see what she was singing, moreso than they were wont to do the rest of the night. No doubt, though, hers is a beautiful, warm sound with more than ample size for the vast space at Civic Opera House. Her stage presence and chemistry with the other principals was undeniable, and with a little more work on her diction her Bess could be great.

As the villain Crown, Lester Lynch was highly effective. Competing with Hawkins for the best dramatic baritone in the performance, Lynch gave Porgy a run for his money (incidentally, the baritone will switch into the title role as part of the alternate cast). The Ohio-native’s voice is rich, full, and dark. Prancing into Catfish Row with Bess in Act I, Lynch commanded the stage and drew the attention of both his fellow performers and the audience when he let out his powerful voice. Lynch is also a skilled actor—as a pimp, murderer and criminal, Crown’s gestures can sometimes be overdone, but the baritone portrayed his character as carefully as possible without resorting to extremes. Despite some of the most difficult music in the opera, Lynch was still vocally fresh on his return for Bess at Catfish Row. If his portrayal of Crown is any indication of his vocal abilities, then his Porgy in the alternate cast will be a show-stopper.

The most entertaining performance of the night undoubtedly came from Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life, the local drug dealer. Smith, who has sung the role all over the world in houses such as Paris, Los Angeles, Washington, and Houston, has a clear top and perfect diction. He dances, shimmies, and struts around the stage like he owns the whole town—and he does. Smith’s comic timing is perfect, and his rendition of “It ain’t necessarily so” garnered the biggest applause of the night. If the performances of Hawkins and Lynch weren’t enough of a reason to see this Porgy, Smith tops it off.

Francesca Zambello as stage director gave a standard take on the story. Each character interacted with each other on a personal level, creating the true sense of family and closeness at Catfish Row that made the desperation in the final scenes so gut-wrenching. Conductor John DeMain doesn’t seem to have found anything novel in Gershwin’s score, but he kept things moving and had the orchestra in check even as some of the dense sections of the orchestration seemed to be running wild.

This Porgy and Bess is not to be missed. It’s not often that an American masterpiece is performed at such a high quality, and the Chicago audience hasn’t missed out on that—if tickets keep selling like they have been, Lyric may decide to keep Porgy and Bess around for the rest of the season!

Paul Wooley



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