Lyric Continues Anniversary Season with Powerful “Porgy and Bess”

George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Hayward’s “Porgy and Bess” is both a spectacle and a love story. It portrays a tight-knit community and a doomed couple, its focus careening back and forth between those opposite poles.

Lyric Opera of Chicago brought that tale of African Americans on Catfish Row in South Carolina to pulsating life on the stage of the Civic Opera House Nov. 17, with mighty solo voices and a large supplementary chorus.

Magnificent American baritone and Lyric Opera favorite Eric Owens is the good-hearted cripple Porgy, who in this production walks with a crutch. Not only is his voice rich and powerful, but he is a dynamic actor in a role laced with pathos, initially due to his lonely life and later because of his devotion to the deeply damaged heroine Bess. Making her Lyric debut is American soprano Adina Aaron as Bess. She is slender, beautiful, and a spit-fire of an actress with a silvery, sensuous voice.

American baritone Eric Greene is the macho, swaggering Crown. His relationship with Bess evokes Dickens’ Bill Sykes and Nancy, but instead of killing his former lover, he rapes her in a scene so chilling that it was almost unwatchable. And then there is Sportin’ Life, who peddles “happy dust.” American tenor Jermaine Smith, who is also a nimble dancer, vividly reprises that role from Lyric’s first-ever “Porgy” in the 2008-09 season. Contralto Gwendolyn Brown is Maria, the formidable owner of the neighborhood cook-shop.       

The opera is blessed with glorious songs, most notably “Summertime,” warmly welcomed on the bitterly cold opening night and sung with stunning clarity by soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, a native of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and first-year member of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, in her Lyric debut. Other well-known numbers are Porgy’s “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which Smith sings with humor and zest.

But there is much, much more to this three-hour plus opera. George Gershwin’s score, punctuated with jazz rhythms and conducted by Ward Stare, paints richly textured sound portraits, tenderly portraying the broken Bess, shadowing the cruel Crown and reptilian Sportin’ Life, and pitching us into a killer hurricane.

Visually Lyric’s production is rough-hewn and earthy, with Catfish Row designed as a rickety multi-floored tenement by Peter J. Davison. Costumes by Paul Tazewell are particularly effective. The people of Catfish Row wear beige, tan and other natural hues for their daily life, soft pastels for the Kittiwah Island picnic, and black for the funerals, of which there are several.

Bess arrives in a form-fitting bright orange dress, but wears white during her days with Porgy. She wear the orange dress again when she leaves Catfish Row, signifying her return to her drug-infused former life.

In the pre-concert lecture it was revealed that from the beginning many people of color have wondered whether this opera, mandated to have an all-African American cast, but constructed entirely by whites, ever should have been written or performed, as it paints a negative portrait of the community. But in this production it is clear that the community, with its gambling, hard-working fishermen and God-fearing women, is a strong stabilizing force in the lives of the inhabitants of Catfish Row, who are buffeted by the winds and currents of the sea as well as by their hard-scrabble lives.

Almost all of the soloists are making Lyric debuts, including tenors Chase Taylor, Anthony P. McGlaun, Curtis Bannister and Jermaine Brown, Jr., sopranos Karen Slack and Samantha McElhaney, baritone Norman Garrett, and mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter. Others, including tenor Bernard Holcom, baritone Will Liverman, soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith, basso Earl Hazell and bass-baritone Kenneth Nichols have sung with Lyric in the past.

As for that mass of Catfish Row residents, chorus master Michael Black says, “We held auditions in Chicago and then went to New York City for two days and held auditions there also. Singers flew in to either city from all over.”

Porgy and Bess” is sung in English with English supertitles. It will be performed in repertory through Dec. 20 at the Civic Opera House, 20 E. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For tickets, performance dates and times, visit the Lyric Opera website or call 312-827-5600.