Lyric’s Porgy and Bess Review –Tragic or Triumphant?

Triumphant! Starting with its phenomenal, ominous sheer screen, Lyric’s production of Porgy and Bess is a triumph in its mastery of every aspect of its art form: it got gripping from the get-go. When that strange, sheer, prophetic “curtain” is lifted, we enter Catfish Row (based on Cabbage Row in South Carolina). There, full of dark foreboding, we go.

We watch—sometimes captive of the simple charm, sometimes in horror—the lives of the African-American community of Porgy and Bess. Ultimately, we can allow ourselves to be transported by Porgy and Bess’s triumphant message of the transformative power of love, but not without also understanding their hardship and journey.

Lyric’s commanding production of THE American Opera of the 20th century totally communicates love’s ability to overcome impossible odds. And, in the process, sells us totally on the power of Porgy’s love for Bess. Despite all the trials and tragedies both social and physical, Porgy’s single-minded devotion to Bess is never in doubt: After all that has happened, Porgy believes he can get to New York and bring Bess home. It’s so musically and dramatically persuasive!

The music alone could have done it: “Summertime” the sweet, sensual lullabyalong with “A Woman is a Sometimes Thing,” and its polar opposite, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (the best marriage vow ever!), and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the blasphemous interpretation of the Bible, are just some of the many iconic songs woven into America’s cultural fabric. The music is so perfect: languid here, sarcastic there, romantic there. And those lyrics? Perfected by Ira Gershwin!

Of course the Gershwins’ soaring, passionate music is central to the multi-layered experience. But, in addition to the phenomenal vocal performance and virtuosic orchestral performance, the drama (what acting!), the look of the production (sets, costumes, props, special effects, that chilling curtain!) reinforce the story so seamlessly, it becomes an organic, visceral statement about personal commitment and courage that still resonates today. That is the triumphant story Porgy and Bess tells.

Many thanks to my friend, Music Historian Charles Troy who shares some of his insights about the content and context of the opera:


It’s ironic that Porgy and Bess is being so frequently produced in opera houses these days, because when George Gershwin’s magnum opus debuted in 1935, it opened on Broadway—because it couldn’t play in an opera house in New York. The Metropolitan Opera had never even had an African-American onstage at the time! So the tiresome debate over the years, over whether Porgy and Bess was or wasn’t an opera (which seems finally to have been settled in the opera column), was originally triggered because of racial prejudice.

Gershwin bent over backward to make his opera true to the South Carolina black experience. He spent five weeks in Charleston and surroundings in the summer of 1934, allowing duBose Heyward to be his guide to the indigenous music. They visited a Gullah meeting and observed a choral service in a small country church, which inspired one of Gershwin’s most breathtaking numbers in the score.


Nonetheless, Heyward’s and Gershwin’s depiction of some of the characters, particularly Porgy and Sportin’ Life, still fell prey to what Duke Ellington deplored at the time as “lampblack Negroisms”—which were hard to avoid in that era of Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima. But in the 21st century, it seems the magnificence and sincerity of Porgy and Bess has won out over the disquieting aspects of this singular work in the court of public opinion.


To learn more about Charles Troy and his work, read about him right here at Chicago-Splash!  Here’s the link to our review: Charles Troy Review


The 2008 production of Porgy and Bess was the first opera my husband and I saw at Lyric.  I remember it as magical. Apparently, many others did, too. According to Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director,

Lyric had such a great success with the company premiere of Porgy and Bess during the 2008-09 season that we decided to bring this magnificent work back for further performances in Francesca Zambello’s vibrant, revelatory production. Ward Stare conducts an almost totally new cast, including the incomparable Eric Owens in the title role.

Peter J. Davison’s sets skillfully convey the poverty of this backwater community; Paul Tazewell’s costumes perfectly “fit” the characters, especially Sportin’ Life; Mark McCullough’s lighting—especially as the sheer curtain is lifted––is just right; Chorus Master Michael Black and Choreographer and Associate Director Denni Sayers know how to move people and they know how people move. Everything worked as if it, too, was directed by a baton. It is an organic work of art.


Need one more nudge? Check out Lyric Lately and to listen in on Porgy and Bess’s marriage counseling session, a down to earth look at their “wedded bliss:” Lyric Opera Blog.


Most important of all?


Don’t miss Porgy and Bess! Last performance on December 20!

For tickets and information call (312) 827-5600 or go to

Watch video and read articles about this production at Porgy.

And then, follow the conversation on Twitter: #Lyric Porgy


Photos: © Todd Rosenberg

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