Last updated on March 16th, 2019
London, why on earth did it take your opera houses so long to stage Porgy and Bess? Thank goodness the English National Opera has corrected this cultural misdemeanour by staging the opera’s first major outing since the 1980s. It’s a sensory feast all round, perfect for opera lovers and novices as well as audiences of all ages.
Porgy and Bess was my first opera. I saw it in Paris, although I can’t remember where or how old I was. It feels like it was a long, long time ago. So, it was with a two-step that I footed it over to the ENO for my second serving of Porgy and Bess. And boy, was it worth the wait.
It’s an adaptation of the 1925 novel, Porgy by DuBose Heyward. George Gershwin composed the English-language opera version. His older brother, Ira, was the lyricist, and Heyward completed the collaborative trio as the librettist. The original stellar cast included Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy, Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life and Maya Angelou as Clara.
Set in Catfish Row, a sweltering fishing community in Charleston, North Carolina, it’s the love story between the beautiful prostitute Bess and the disabled street beggar, Porgy. Crown, Bess’s husband, murders a player during a crap game in Act 1 and flees. Bess is left in the clutches of drug dealer Sportin’ Life who crawls around her like a kissing bug. Porgy attempts to rescue Bess from Sportin’s addictive ‘happy dust’ and get her out of Crown’s controlling clutches.
This is an American opera with gospel, blues, jazz and folk music at its core. If you haven’t seen or heard of Porgy and Bess, you will recognise some of the hit tunes – Summertime, I got Plenty o’ Nuttin, and It Ain’t Necessarily So.
Nadine Benjamin opened with a soaring rendition of Summertime, sung amidst the hustle and bustle of Catfish Row. Baritone Eric Greene limped stage-wide as the disabled Porgy, but he was all muscle, physically and vocally. BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 winner, Nicole Cabell, who makes her debut on the ENO stage as Bess, was a tad shaky in Act I but came out of her shell in the second half. A superb Frederick Ballentine stole my show as the snaky, diabolical Sportin,’ with It Ain’t Necessarily So.
The five-star set design is by Michael Yeargan and lighting design is by Donald Holder, both two-time Tony Award-winners. You can practically taste the heat and the rain (provided through a digital backdrop). The remarkable set and the superlative cast of 40 will move onto Amsterdam next for a showing at the Dutch National Opera and then onto the Metropolitan Opera in New York. You can catch some summertime with Porgy and Bess until 17 November at the ENO. The singers will be back together in November for the staged version of Britten’s War Requiem to mark the centenary of the World War I Armistice.
The ENO production of this gorgeous opera is a jazzy, soul-drenched rip-roaring success. For goodness sakes London , please don’t wait so long to stage it again!
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