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

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.

The nature of narropera?

How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

Early Swedish opera - Stenhammer world premiere

The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

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):