Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

A Mysterious Lucia at Forest Lawn

On September 10, 2017, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a beautiful outdoor setting at Forest Lawn. POP audiences enjoy casual seating with wine, water, and finger foods at each table. General and Artistic Director Josh Shaw greeted patrons in a “blood stained” white wedding suit. Since Lucia is a Scottish opera, it opened with an elegant bagpipe solo calling members of the audience to their seats.

This is Rattle: Blazing Berlioz at the Barbican Hall

Blazing Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra and The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girls' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Mark Padmore on festivals, lieder and musical conversations

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, at the start of my conversation with Mark Padmore, that I had not previously been aware of the annual music festival held in the small Cotswolds town of Tetbury, which was founded in 2002 and to which Padmore will return later this month to perform a recital of lieder by Schubert and Schumann with pianist Till Fellner.

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Giovanni Simon Mayr: Medea in Corinto

The Bavarian-born Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845) trained and made his career in Italy and thus ended up calling himself Giovanni Simone Mayr, or simply G. S. Mayr. He is best known for having been composition teacher to Giuseppe Donizetti.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

Matthias Goerne: Bach Cantatas for Bass

In this new release for Harmonia Mundi, German baritone Matthias Goerne presents us with two gems of Bach’s cantata repertoire, with the texts of both BWV 56 and 82 exploring one’s sense of hope in death.  Goerne adeptly interprets the paradoxical combination of hope and despair that underpins these works, deploying a graceful lyricism alongside a richer, darker bass register.

Gramophone Award Winner — Matthias Goerne Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge

Winner of the 2017 Gramophone Awards, vocal category - Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach - Johannes Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge and other Brahms Lieder. Here is why ! An exceptional recording, probably a new benchmark.

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):