ENO: Porgy and Bess – London Coliseum

Composer: George Gershwin

Libretto: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, based on the play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward

Director: James Robinson

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

There has not been much in the way of good news coming from English National Opera of late. Perhaps – just perhaps – this new production of the Gershwins’ musical crowning glory, a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Dutch National Opera, will help to steady the ship.
When first produced, Porgy and Besswas such a drastic undertaking that it initially flopped, at least by the standards of Broadway musical theatre by which it was being judged. Recent London productions have sought to keep the work in that same genre, downplaying its sung-through narrative and concentrating on the glories of the songs.
Under the eye of director James Robinson, the ENO’s production restores the majestic brilliance of the full score, as the story unfolds of the residents of Catfish Row, a seashore tenement in South Carolina. The setting may be nearly a century old, but it feels relevant: a black underclass struggling to survive, a white judiciary more eager to prosecute than investigate, and a fragile economy that could all fall to pieces when a hurricane approaches.
Thankfully though, the modern relevances are left for the audience to consider. Designer Michael Yeargen’s set takes the brick-clad courtyard of the real Catfish Row and reduces it to its wooden skeletal beams, further emphasising how all the different families live on top of one another.
It also affords enough space for the full company – the programme lists 23 named parts, with a further 40-plus in the ensemble – to give full weight to the sumptuous score.
The story itself – of Bess, escaping the clutches of a murderous boyfriend to find love in the arms of Porgy, a cripple who the people of Catfish Row had more or less written off – grows in this staging. The women are the backbone of this society, dominated by Tichina Vaughan’s Maria and Latonia Moore’s Serena, but with a sterling performance by Nadine Benjamin as Clara, whose opening rendition of Summertime sets the scene for an evening of sublime Gershwin.
Initially, in comparison, the titular leads are the least strong elements of the cast. But that is also intrinsic to their characters: Nicole Cabell’s Bess is shunned by the residents as not good enough even for Eric Greene’s Porgy. And while their attitude to her softens as the couple’s relationship grows, Cabell doesn’t always have the power and strength to reflect that in her vocal performance.
In contrast, Greene’s Porgy also starts off a little underpowered, but grows in stature as the presence of love in his life draws him out of himself, until he ends the play as the dominant voice on Catfish Row.
Supplementing the core couple are NmonFord as Bess’s former lover Crown, and Frederick Ballantine’s flamboyant drug dealer Sporting Life. Individually they provide the sexual and narcotic addictions which Bess had struggled to escape; the lure away from a settled life with Porgy is never consensual, but nor is it anything but inevitable.
While the storytelling brings a sense of vitality to Bess and Porgy’s tales, the operatic emphasis does at times feel much more slow-paced than it should. On multiple occasions, Gershwin’s score suggests freneticism, anguish and urgency, but the movement on stage rarely moves at a pace beyond glacial.
But with highlights such as Sporting Life’s joyous It Ain’t Necessarily So, and a series of overlapping prayers as the ensembles shelters from the oncoming hurricane, what dominates this production is a celebration of the rich musicality of a piece which is not only Gershwin’s finest work, but one of opera’s eternal masterpieces.
Runs until 17 Nov 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton

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