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Porgy & Bess and Lulu Review - A Weekend Of Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Patricia Simms

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The Ardis Karainik Theater of the Civic Opera House

This is the second article in a three-part series about experiencing Lyric Opera of Chicago for the first time.

At last! We finally experienced our first operas at Lyric Opera of Chicago. You’d think that since we’re new subscribers we’d go slowly. Instead we plunged right in. Two operas in one weekend!

To make the whole experience more relaxed, we decided to make a weekend of it and stay at a hotel downtown. That’s how we discovered our now favorite hotel, the Hotel Monaco. More about that later.

Since we were already downtown, we ambled—not scrambled—over to the Lyric on time for the half-hour pre-opera lecture. That also gave us a chance to admire the beautiful lobby with the grand sweeping staircases and vaulted ceilings. Soon it was filled with Chicago’s operatic glitterati, literati and notarati. All of this prepared us well for the magnificent opera house itself.

Lyric Opera of Chicago Wall Detail

It is luminous, elegant, exotic and so not-my-living-room! Instead of watching an opera on DVD tonight, I was about to experience the magic of a live performance by world-class performers in a world renowned opera house. It was electrifying!

Bess (Morenike Fadayomi) makes quite a first impression

So the performance began. On Friday night, Porgy and Bess, the familiar, iconic folk opera of beloved George Gershwin was right on its romantic, lyrical message. On Saturday night, Lulu, the somewhat obscure, iconoclastic, dissonant, bloody, sexy “crime report set to music” (per Lyric’s Season Companion, no less) composed by Alban Berg told its story, too. A study in contrasts? “It ain’t necessarily so!” 

Lulu (Marlis Peterson) tries to charm Jack the Ripper (Wolfgang Schone)

Let’s start with the most obvious: two sexy, beautiful, exploited women. Both made the choices they needed to survive in their circumstances. Both made choices that led to their undoing. Drug-addicted Bess chose “happy dust (cocaine)” and a probable life of prostitution. In her case, Lulu’s choice of prostitution led to her death at the hand of Jack the Ripper. But both operas give us pictures of the transformative power of love.

Porgy's on his way (Lester Lynch)

At the end, when Porgy sets out to find Bess in New York (“Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way”), do you think he’s going to get there? I do. Here’s why: At the Porgy and Bess Symposium, Gordon Hawkins (he and Lester Lynch brilliantly play Porgy in this production ) shared his theory with us:  In New York, Porgy is shining shoes in grand Central Station, he looks up to see whose shoes he’s shining and it’s Sportin’ Life! That’s enough for me! Come to think of it, that’s enough for a sequel!

So where’s the transformative love in Lulu? Certainly not any of those gonad-driven men! Countess Geschwitz, whose unconditional love is the only bright spot in Lulu’s life, resolves to return to Germany, study law and fight for women’s rights. Then, unfortunately, she, like Lulu, is stabbed to death. Even then, she swears to stay at Lulu’s side.

Lulu (Marlis Peterson) tries to charm Dr. Schon (Wolfgang Schone)

That leads to the incongruous comparison of the music. I was singing Porgy and Bess hits on the way in and out. They’re part of the American Song Book. They’re lyrical, syncopated, the vernacular. But as in Lulu, you will also notice some appropriately dissonant chords when the going gets rough. And, as in Porgy and Bess, we find some sweet lyrical outbursts when Lulu and Alwa surprise us with moments of traditional harmonization and melody. I wasn’t disturbed by the dissonant music of Lulu—it fit the action perfectly, the music and story were an organic whole.

Sportin' Life (Jermane Smith) tries to persuade Bess (Morenike Fadayomi) to come with him

Last, a comparison of the productions. I’d never seen a production of Porgy and Bess but since the music was so familiar to me, I thought I knew what to expect. Like everyone else in the exuberant audience, I was delighted. Porgy and Bess were real, sympathetic, heartwarming characters who had all of us pulling for them. And, damn him! Sportin’ Life was so seductively dangerous it’s easy to see how he was able to persuade Bess to leave with him. Even when you know it’s going to happen as we did, it breaks your heart. But I guess that’s opera for you!

Lulu entertains some of her admirers:Buffy Baggott/schoolboy, Thomas Hammons/Schiolch, Jan Buchwald/acrobat.

On the other hand, I was so leery of Lulu, I rented a DVD of the opera to “see what we were getting ourselves into.” The Lyric’s production was so much better than the one we saw; it’s hard to believe it is the same opera. I’m not talking only about production values—I’m referring to point of view. On the DVD, Lulu is almost the inhuman embodiment of evil, a totally unsympathetic character. It’s hard to think of her as anything but a metaphor of evil: she’s even dressed as a snake. That production had no heart. But the Lyric’s production never let you forget Lulu was a lost soul who didn’t even have a name—everyone wanted to call her something else, e.g. Mignon, Eve, etc. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Lulu was a sympathetic character, but I wished she had had a better life, just like Bess. We simply couldn’t stop talking about—or thinking about—either memorable woman.

Needless to say, our Lyric weekend was fascinating, exciting and thoroughly engrossing. Read more about the Hotel Monaco, our weekend retreat, right here at www.chicago-splash.com after 12/1/08.

Buy tickets online, telephone or at the box office of  Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. #860, Chicago, IL 60606, (312)332-2244, www. lyricopera.org.

Photos: Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago/ Dan Rest


Published on Dec 31, 1969

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