Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Gordon Hawkins and Morenike Fadayomi as the title characters of Porgy and Bess. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
02 Dec 2008

Porgy through a glass lightly

It was, of course, coincidence. When the Chicago Lyric Opera scheduled George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for the current season, not even the preludes to the 2008 presidential election had begun.

G. Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Porgy (Gordon Hawkins (Nov 18, 21, 26, 29, Dec 3, 6, 9, 15, 19), Lester Lynch (Nov 23, Dec 5, 12, 18)); Bess (Morenike Fadayomi (Nov 18, 21, 26, 29, Dec 3, 6, 9, 15, 19), Lisa Daltirus (Nov 23, Dec 5, 12, 18)); Crown (Lester Lynch (Nov 18, 21, 26, 29, Dec. 3, 6, 9, 15, 19), Terry Cook (Nov 23, Dec. 5, 12, 18); Serena (Jonita Lattimore); Clara (Laquita Mitchell); Maria (Marietta Simpson); Sportin' Life (Jermaine Smith); Jake (Eric Greene); Coroner (David Darlow); Detective (Danny Goldring); Policeman (Chuck Coyl). Lyric Opera of Chicago. Conductor (John DeMain (Nov. 18, 21, 23, 26, 29, Dec. 3, 9, 12, 15, 18, 19), Kelly Kuo (Dec. 5, 6)). Director (Francesca Zambello). Set Designer (Peter J. Davison).

Above: Gordon Hawkins and Morenike Fadayomi as the title characters of Porgy and Bess. [All photos by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]

 

The company could not have known that “local boy” Barack Obama would be elected the first black president of the United States shortly before the premiere of its first-ever Porgy on November 18. Thus the two events obviously have nothing to do with each other; they do, however, underscore the degree to which the encounter with a well-established and well-known work of art is colored by such a coincidence.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the enthusiasm — indeed, the euphoria — with which masses of Americans reacted to Obama’s election carried over into the Lyric’s impressive Art Deco home on Wacker Drive. Yet a visitor to the city in the Porgy audience could but recall the exuberant scene across town at Grant Park on election night and ask whether Obama’s victory provides a new filter for the 1935 work.

Porgy, after all, has long been celebrated — if with occasional discomfort — as the great American opera. But does it still lay claim to that stature? To ask that question in no way overlooks the superior quality of the Lyric production that originated at Washington’s National Opera and went on to evoke acclaim in Los Angeles.

Director Francesca Zambello, who on occasion has trouble reigning in a hyper-active imagination, opted here for a straight-forward and down-to-earth approach to the opera, recreating — with the help designers Peter J. Davison and Paul Tazewell — a slice of the life of the Gullah blacks whose life — and music — composer George Gershwin and his creative team had studied closely on their visits to Charleston and its near-by islands.

The demand of the Gershwin estate that Porgy be staged with an all-black cast (except for police officers) remains in force, and the singers that the Lyric assembled documented the achievement of such vocalists in a world open to them for a mere half century. What was particularly impressive is that these are artists whose repertory extends far beyond Porgy. Baritone Gordon Hawkins, Porgy on November 21, sings Alberich in stagings of Wagner’s Ring around the world, and Lester Lynch (Crown) is a celebrated Count di Luna in Verdi’s Trovartore both here and in Europe. Morenike Fadayomi (Bess) lists Donna Elvira and Salome among signature roles, and Jonita Lattimore includes the Figaro Countess and Marguerite in Faust in her repertory. Marietta Simson (Maria), slowly becoming a senior among today’s black artists, is treasured for her work both in opera and oratorio. One could continue to list such credits of distinction for each member of the cast.

For the success of the production, much credit goes to John DeMain, who all but re-invented Porgy when he conducted the 1975 Houston Grand Opera production that staged the work complete for the first time with the sung recitative that Gershwin had intended. A stellar evening at the Lyric — beyond all doubt.

Porgy_Chicago_02.pngJermaine Smith (Sportin' Life) and Morenike Fadayomi (Bess) in Porgy and Bess.

Why then did one — or at least some in the audience — feel that this production was more an impressive document than a thrilling experience of great opera? Does the election of Barack Obama as president suggest that Porgy, despite its wonderful “hit” tunes, is dated?

As mentioned above, there have always been reservations about the work. Early on, critic — and composer — Virgil Thomson wrote that “folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself,” and Obama’s election proves definitely that that is no longer the case. Duke Ellington found that “the times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms,” and several members of the original cast later questioned whether their characters did not play into the stereotypic picture of African Americans as part of America’s huddled masses, living in poverty, taking drugs and settling disagreements with their fists.

An earlier filter on the opera was provided by the civil rights and black power movements that dominated the American scene after the 1950s. Upon a revival of the Porgy play in the ‘60s, for example, social critic and African American educator Harold Cruse called it “the most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.” And it evoked resistance among black artists.

Porgy_Chicago_03.pngMorenike Fadayomi (Bess) tries to resist Lester Lynch's (Crown) advances in a scene from Porgy and Bess.

Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the 1950s film (the role went to Sidney Poitier), and soprano Betty Allen, president of the Harlem School of the Arts, loathed the work. Grace Bumbry, Bess at the Met in 1985, later said:

I thought it beneath me; I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.

These are comments that come to mind on the heels of the Chicago Porgy and they have a certain valid resonance when the work is watched over Barack Obama’s shoulder. Underlying this feeling is the coincidence that the Lyric paired Porgy with Alban Berg’s Lulu at the mid-point of its 2008-2009 season.

For Lulu, an absolute among the femmes fatales of opera, was completed in fragmentary form in 1937, only two years after Porgy. Yet — and despite its roots in the hot-house fin-de-siècle sin-soaked soil of Freud’s Vienna, the work — in Paul Curran’s superlative production — is of overwhelming contemporary relevance and appeal.

This is not to suggest that Porgy and Bess should be shelved. In an erudite note in the Chicago program Naomi André sums things up:

The most disheartening part of the opera is the hopelessness of the characters’ fates. It is distressing to see the drinking, gambling, murder and sexual assault that take place. Even more devastating is that the characters we cheer for end up dead or broken by the end. And we know that Porgy — a poor crippled black man, will never make it to New York. Although the residents of Catfish Row sing about the “Heav’nly Lan’ of promise and opportunity, we know they will most likely not see it in their lifetimes.

That’s where Barack Obama enters in. One likes to think that a young black of today, already established in the drug trade, might have seen the Grant Park demonstration and thought:

“Hey, there is another way; there is hope.
I’m on my way.”

Wes Blomster

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):