Libretto: Dubose and Dorothy Heward
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
Music: George Gershwin
Director: Christine Crouse
Conductor: Albert Horne
Reviewer: Val Baskott
Most of us know Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess from the iconic songs alone, such asSummertime, I got plenty of nuttin’, It ain’t necessarily so, Bess, you is my woman now, I loves you Porgy but don’t know the context. Dubbed “The peoples’ opera”, this poignant love story could translate to any country where racism exploits and suppresses a sector of society to the point of total deprivation. Cape Town Opera’s have transferred the Gershwins’s portrayal of 1920s life of America’s Deep South to the South Africa of 1970’s in the Soweto township. The dimensions of the African anti-apartheid struggle, in parallel with segregation in the USA make for a powerful resonance. A fantastic chorus and orchestra, notable solo performances, and exuberant near continuous dance make for a memorable but at times overwhelming experience.
Seedy Catfish Row is on the waterfront; a poor black community where drugs, gambling, and prostitution are rife, but God-fearing, gospel preaching and keeping an eye out to help each other keep the balance. Fisherman Jake’s wife Clara (Philesa Sibeko) expressively sings Summertime to lull their baby to sleep as she watches the business of the street below. Serena (Arline Jaftha), the God-fearing wife of gambler Robbins tries to stop him getting into another game. The game hots up, first joined by Porgy (Xolela Sixaba) the cripple, who can get a living from his gambling, and then swaggering, violent, drunk Crown (Ntobeko Rwanqa). Bess (Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi) Crown’s loose living girlfriend, and Sporting Life (Tshepo Moagi), pusher of Happy Dust cocaine, watch the action. He has his eye on her and exploits her habit, and wants to take her away to New York.
Robbins and Crown get into a fight and Robbins is killed, Crown escapes to Kittiwah Island and in the aftermath only Porgy will hide Bess from the police. His love for her deepens and brings out the best in her, and she wants to stay with him. On Kittiwah Island Crown lies in wait for Bess after the picnic and forces her to stay with him. Later she’s found ill wandering the streets and Porgy and the women care for her. Jake (Aubrey Loderwyk) decides to put to sea in spite of possible storms. Bess recovers enough to re-affirm her love for Porgy but fears Crown will take her again.
At the height of the storm Crown returns to mock God and the people and reclaim Bess. Clara rushes into the water as she sees Jake’s empty boat float past and Crown, to taunt Porgy, goes after her. Jake and Clara are drowned, but Sporting Life knows Crown is still alive and sets up an encounter with Porgy, who kills Crown. The community clams up and protects Porgy from the police, however he is taken up to identify the body. Sporting Life exploits the situation to feed Bess’s’ habit and finally when she’s high persuades her to go off-with him to New York. Porgy is released and finds her gone, but is determined to go after her.
Sixaba’s powerful voice and physique dominate the show but he can be tenderly expressive to Bess. Maswanganyi is a sultry sex kitten who is transformed to domesticity by Porgy’s kindly loving and her powerful soprano is enough to partner Sixaba’s voice. Rwanqa, another strong voice, acts out a wholly convincing Crown, a man of violent temper and disregard for anyone else, except his passion for Bess. Moagi sings, dances and oozes cunning, capturing Sporting Life excellently and has a cracking duet There’s a boat that’s leaving soon for New York. Two other parts stand out from the throng of good singing, Lodewyk’s fine expressive tenor and clear diction as Jake and Jaftha’s three dimensional portrayal of Serena, her performance in the pre-amble to Robbins funeral is deeply moving. It is these community scenes that stick in the memory, feasts of sound and movement, underpinned by the fine orchestra, which is supported by Welsh National Opera.
Overall the only weakness are small and lie in the original plot, and perhaps in the adaptation where occasionally we are not sure if we are in Africa or the States, but that’s a very slight quibble. A great show, catch it on tour or in London.
Touring, then at the London Coliseum from July 11–21