sat 20/07/2024

Porgy and Bess, English National Opera review - strength in depth on Catfish Row | reviews, news & interviews

Porgy and Bess, English National Opera review - strength in depth on Catfish Row

Porgy and Bess, English National Opera review - strength in depth on Catfish Row

A heroic cast steers Gershwin's masterpiece home in style

Community matters: the church picnic All images - Bill Knight for theartsdesk

After exhausting years of financial and artistic crisis-management at the Coliseum, English National Opera urgently needed an ironclad, feelgood success. This season’s opener, a somewhat idiosyncratic take on Strauss’s Salome, was unlikely to fit that bill.

Despite a couple of niggles, however, I’m happy to report that James Robinson’s full-throttle production of Porgy and Bess steers the rocky boat of St Martin’s Lane home in splendid style. Surprisingly, George Gershwin’s 1935 score – with brother Ira’s, and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s, lyrics – has not played in its full operatic glory on the London stage for a generation.

Even more remarkably, given their history, ENO have never performed it. After all, it was ENO’s forerunner company at Sadler’s Wells that premiered Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1945. And listening to Gershwin’s storm scenes, his drama-laden choruses, and his simmering musical tensions between a wounded hero and a community that both supports and stifles him, convinced me again that the fisherfolk of South Carolina (Britten saw Porgy and Bess in New York) helped spark the birth of their counterparts in Suffolk. 

Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Dianne McIntyre’s choreography all fed an evening of visual as much as musical spectacle. In the pit, the inimitable John Wilson – who keeps his spooky conductor’s hotline to the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood in perfect trim – drew bright, sharp and sassy colours from the ENO orchestra. At the outset, indeed, I worried that their flair and punch might overshadow the singing. The main set presents the seaside tenements of Catfish Row as the wall-less cells in some run-down skeleton of a Palladian country house. Two storeys of open rooms – with one central block, and two detachable wings – barely shelter the bustling tenants of this warehouse for poor, black fishing families. The set revolved regularly – perhaps too much. After the brief overture, Clara (Nadine Benjamin) had to launch with no preamble into “Summertime”: surely one of the toughest early calls in opera. To have the set beneath you twist at distracting angles just as you try to nail one of the world’s best-loved and most-recorded songs hardly sounds like easy living to me. Happily, “Summertime” returns in different, more ominous moods at intervals. Benjamin later had a chance to display a sweet depth of tone that put her in good company among an outstanding cast – and a magnificent chorus. 

As for the principals (both American), Nicole Cabell as Bess proved not a weak link in any way (this production has none) but a slightly foreign element – perhaps aptly, given that she stands apart from the crowd and, at the close, opts to take that ship for New York with drug-dealing Sporting Life rather than stay with the noble, crippled Porgy in the enfolding, enclosing confines of Catfish Row. Cabell’s soprano lent Bess a lyric polish and finesse that indicated that, in the Big Apple, she might set her sights on Carnegie Hall rather than Broadway. She acted powerfully and looked terrific, but her upwardly-mobile operatic patina made few concessions to the “folk” or even pop dimensions of Gershwin’s score. Then again, why should she when that very vocal contrast turned her great duet with Porgy (“Bess, you is my woman now”) into a thrilling highlight? Sometimes gravelly, often tender, always compelling, Eric Greene’s warm and winning Porgy inevitably recalled the Willard White of Simon Rattle’s fondly-remembered Glyndebourne production. Once or twice, he too had to contend with the over-busy, ever-spinning set. Stuck in a corner with his homies, he (delightfully) sang “I got plenty o’ nutting” just as elaborate stage manoeuvres annoyingly caught the eye to prove that, as yet, ENO doesn’t quite have that problem (or, perhaps, blessing). 

This cast, though, shows terrific strength in depth. From Latonia Moore’s commanding gospel fervour as Serena to Donovan Singletary’s smoothly forceful Jake, Catfish Row emerged as a slum crammed with stars. It’s worth pointing out that South African singers took no fewer than five character parts, and they all excelled – whether Nozuko Teto’s strawberry seller or Njabulo Madlala’s Jim. At times, this almost felt like a Cape Town Opera benefit night. Their welcome presence proved again what an extraordinary nursery for the whole world of music theatre has developed at the tip of Africa. Meanwhile, Bess’s twin plagues, and twin tempters – the wheedling pusher Sporting Life, and the abusive thug Crown – strutted their stuff in a chilling double dose of what Gershwin probably never called toxic masculinity. Frederick Ballentine and Nmon Ford (as a horribly charismatic Crown) deserved all their mixed cheer-boos at the close. (Pictured above: Nicole Cabell with Nmon Ford and Eric Greene)

For all the individual talent on display, perhaps the ensemble as a whole did most to make this Porgy sing. Each of the big choral numbers blew us away as decisively as the fatal second-act storm (surely an inspiration for Britten) which provokes the final denouement. Just one example: the church picnic on Kittiwah Island, where the painterly set showed its versatility by morphing into a pier and boardwalk backed by glowing, shifting summer skies. Kudos, throughout, to video designer Luke Halls. Ballentine’s Sporting Life quipped and swaggered beautifully through the irreverent gags of “It ain’t necessarily so”. But then the smart ensemble work – with a baby’s cradle casually chucked away – and Serena’s stirring rebuttal (fabulous ferocity again from Latonia Moore) put his sceptic’s anthem in its true context as the special pleading of a manipulative rogue. 

For good or ill, community shapes every choice on Catfish Row. To augment the vibrant togetherness of Robinson’s ensemble scenes, Wilson’s conducting brought out the unending stylistic clash between personal desires and collective values. The choruses embrace us raptly in the more traditional elements of Gershwin’s diverse score – which so brilliantly incorporates half-a-dozen different strands from the African American musical patchwork. Here, the people en masse cling to gospel, to spirituals, to work-songs: those time-worn tokens of harmony and solidarity in the face of relentless racism and poverty. In contrast, Bess and her outsider men strike out into the musical future, as when Sporting Life lures her away with that New York-bound boat. He sings in a big-band vein that drags us north, into the new age of swing. We could almost be listening to Frank Sinatra. 

The folk of Catfish Row will never reach that promised land of which they sing so beautifully. But the Coliseum show carries us much closer to it than any of sawn-off, musical-style abridgement of Porgy and Bess ever could. Laden with vocal treasures, splendidly rigged out, and skippered on every deck with skill and dash, this is a boat that should not be missed. 

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