Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, sometimes called the first great American opera, returns until the end of the year at the Lyric from a production that originally ran in 2009. It is a work that divides because it occupies an uncomfortable and unresolved space between representation and stereotype, humanism and social realism, pessimism and reparation. That it remains unresolved, that it cannot simply be condemned or enshrined, means that it is still an active document about race in the United States.

Eric Owens (Porgy) and Adina Aaron (Bess) © Todd Rosenberg
Eric Owens (Porgy) and Adina Aaron (Bess)
© Todd Rosenberg

The set, constructed from rusted corrugated siding interleaved with drapes that, when the light is right, glows suddenly golden, itself seems to shimmer between the magic realism of opera and the poverty of the fictional Catfish Row in which the events of the story take place. It’s a minimal set that does little more than provide vertical space in which the large chorus can disperse themselves. But the set’s purpose is really to stay out of the way, since what really defines the look of this piece is the constantly shifting mass of bodies onstage, broken up into little clusters engaged in dramas of the daily grind.

Musically, the choral singing was the most agile and expressive I’ve heard at the Lyric, spanning a frankly shocking dynamic range. Chorus master Michael Black runs his group like a Ferrari, bringing them from a low murmur to a wail in the storm scene in no time flat. In other moments they are ethereal, other times stereophonic, and still other times cry out to the audience in an imperative voice. They’re also remarkably flexible, as in their bantered responses to Sportin’ Life, playing against him not dutifully but with character and verve. The strength of the chorus speaks to the overall strength of this cast as an ensemble; individual voices are good, even great, but it is the quality of collectivity that stands out in this production, the heteroglossia of a community bound together by storms and other sources of menace.

About those individual voices: they all converge on Eric Owens, who sings Porgy with a fathomless voice of reinforced steel. Yet there is an undeniable gentleness in the way he painstakingly transports himself across the stage or addresses those around him. There is, predictably, a lot of personal pain in this show that comes from existing structures of injustice, and some of the highlights come in the moments these singers claim the stage as their platform of grief – not just Owens, but also Karen Slack as Robbins’ widow, whose mourning aria is one of the most affecting performances of the night.

Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life) © Todd Rosenburg
Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life)
© Todd Rosenburg

Jermaine Smith employs a simpering, nearly helium-high tenor to sing Sportin’ Life, the self-serving drug dealer who’s less frightening than pathetic. Fortunately, Smith is a joy to watch. His grinning campiness owes some of its mechanical precision to Jude Law’s robot escort in Spielberg’s A.I. Norman Garrett, meanwhile, is a mountainous Jake, and it is remarkable how we see at once that Porgy is no match physically for him and yet fails to be intimidated by him. Adina Aaron’s Bess is a wisp of a thing dressed at the other end of the color saturation spectrum from Porgy, all gaudy heels and short dresses. The scene in which she relents to her attraction to Jake is a model of courageous acting, and an even greater wonder is the way she keeps her voice direct and connected to the core of Bess’ feeling even as her body suffers the ravages of her addictions and her men.

And so the marriage, really, between performers and score here is perfect, because Gershwin’s text-setting is near-miraculous, somehow every word is clear and seems to be naturally inflected by the curvature of the musical line. The meaning bursts out at you as if there were absolutely no strain between music and language. This would have been achievement enough, but listen also to the way Gershwin introduces blocks of material before stacking them on top of each other, as in the opening number “Summertime,” in which the famous lilt appears at the number’s culmination with a whole host of other voices. The innovation of this great opera is the sound of community, where individual voices don’t disappear into rigid homophony but instead dip and rise elegantly within the fray.

****1