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

Cold Mountain Wows Audience at Santa Fe World Premiere

On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.

Review: You Promised Me Everything

Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

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):