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Lyric Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' Has Plenty O' Plenty

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 22, 2014 7:00PM

Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

One might assume that the most American of operas is perennially one of our most beloved, but it ain’t necessarily so. Porgy and Bess has been continually controversial for its unconventional musicality and its portrayal of impoverished African-Americans since debuting in 1935, but Lyric Opera’s vibrant production is a celebration of the American masterpiece.

Director Francesca Zambello brings the residents of Catfish Row to life in the production’s return to the Civic Opera House, where it was first staged in 2008. The Gershwins' tale of redemption and hope for a lonely handicapped man and a lost woman started out too quietly during Monday’s opening performance, but, after some modification by conductor Ward Stare, both the melodies from the orchestra pit and the ample vocal talent onstage shone.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens embodies Porgy, conveying both a quiet dignity and powerful physicality as the tenderhearted beggar. Owens’ vocal dexterity and richness is ready-made for the role, and his on-stage limp is convincing to boot. Soprano Adina Aaron makes her compelling Lyric debut as the titular sultry junkie. Bess’ moral vacillations were impressively expressed through Aaron’s messa di voce, and her extended floating of high notes imbued the performance with vigor and vulnerability. The harmonic exchanges of the unlikely lovers delivered on some of the show’s most poignant moments.

Opening the show with a standard like “Summertime” is an intimidating feat, yet soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi’s charismatic company debut was a triumph for the Ryan Opera Center member. In another show-stopping moment, soprano Karen Slack delivered a goose bump-inducing a’capella opening to "My Man's Gone Now," while mourning the death of her character’s husband, Robbins. Tenor Jermaine Smith provided a spirited slither as Sportin' Life, going head-to-head with Contralto Gwendolyn Brown’s keeper of Catfish Row, the motherly Maria.

Porgy and Bess is a story of social issues in a community as much as a love story, and the strength of this society was vividly delivered by the chorus, whether picnicking or taking refuge from a hurricane. Lyric’s scintillating production underscores the drudgery, violence, aspiration, and empathy found in everyday life. Nearly 80 years after Porgy and Bess' premiere, the opera's reflection of its time continues proves that American folk opera still resonates plenty in the present.

Porgy and Bess runs November 17 - December 20, 2014. Tickets are available at or by phone at 312-827-5600.