Monday, 15 October 2018

Something for everyone: Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' from English National Opera

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nmon Ford, Nicole Cabell - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nmon Ford, Nicole Cabell -
English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin Porgy and Bess; Eric Greene, Nicole Cabell, Nmon Ford, Latonia Moore, Nadine Benjamin, Frederick Ballentine, dir: James Robinson, cond: John Wilson; English National Opera at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 11 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Full of good things; ENO's first ever production of Gershwin's classic

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nicole Cabell, Eric Greene - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nicole Cabell, Eric Greene
English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
This was the first-ever English National Opera (ENO) production of Porgy and Bess (11 October 2018) and, as a co-production by ENO, Dutch National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera New York, no expense was spared. The company was assembled from home-grown and imported talent on stage with the ENO orchestra in the pit. Whoever might still subscribe to the notion that the piece is hard to cast from black singers of the right calibre must be changing their tune now. Directed by James Robinson and conducted by John Wilson, the production featured Eric Greene as Porgy, Nicole Cabell as Bess, Nmon Ford as Crown, Latonia Moore as Serena, Nadine Benjamin as Clara and Frederick Ballentine as Sportin' Life.

The director James Robinson opted to set the production in the American South in something like the 1920s, but also harking back to those huge ENO productions of the 1980s with revolving set and the stage filled with larger-than-life chorus (40 of them, though it seemed like there were more). The buildings of Catfish Row and the storm at sea were projected on to a scrim downstage. Generally there was a retro feel to the show. And my neighbours in the audience loved that. There have been productions transplanted to a different place and a different time, but this was not one of those.

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nadine Benjamin, Donovan Singletary - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nadine Benjamin, Donovan Singletary
English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
The singing was terrific. Nadine Benjamin as Clara opened with a gorgeous, swoopy ‘Summertime’, Latonia Moore as the widowed Serena had the best numbers in the show ‘My man’s gone now’ and ‘Dr Jesus’ and sang them terrifically. Frederick Ballentine’s Sporting Life was alluring and cynical, Eric Greene’s Porgy was heartbreaking. There are a lot of ‘smaller’ roles that stood out too: Ron Samm’s Peter the Honey Man and Nozuko Teto’s Strawberry Seller. Only Nicole Cabell as Bess didn’t manage to punch through with her gorgeous but (for me) too covered sound. The big set-piece chorus numbers were the things that made the biggest impact. They blew our socks off. Great dancing too.

I hadn’t realised how little spoken dialogue there was in this piece. There were inconsistencies in the pronunciation, but who cares? The surtitles projected what I assume was the text from the libretto with all its ‘chillun’ and ‘Lawd’ (however that is meant to be pronounced) – which meant an extra reading challenge.

The orchestra made great work of Gershwin’s score, with its complicated rhythms, its leitmotifs and its pinpoint characterisation. I particularly enjoyed the clarinet solos and the bar-room piano moments. I had heard the ENO band swing before (at Hackney Empire on Charlie Parker Yardbird with Clark Rundell); I’d go again just to hear them later in the run when they swing more.

As for the piece itself, I felt it was good to set it in the location and period it was intended to. That way we were constantly reminded of its heritage and we took it at face value. There was no need to explain – or censor – because ‘we don’t think/speak like that any more’, in the way ethnographic museums apologise for their patronising captions. Yet we had space to reflect that this could have been set in Peckham, or Queen’s, or Cape Town, or anywhere where poverty, addiction and religion live side by side. For example, if they couldn’t get together $15 to bury the murdered Robbins they would have to sell his body to the medical students. And the insights into the mind of an addict who, like Bess, can’t leave her addiction behind. And Porgy, the cripple, ‘made to be lonely’ but believing in love.

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
There was lots to think about, lots of wonderful things to hear and lots to look at (it would be a shame not to mention Crown taking his top off and showing us the body that a diet of birds’ eggs and oysters on Kittiwah Island had given him).

It was a long show. The first half was 95 minutes and the 7.30 start meant we didn’t leave the theatre until 10.50 on a school night. I felt sure some of it could have been cut without any complaints. But it was a great show and there was something for everyone. There are 14 more performances.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Porgy and Bess, 11 October 2018 English National Opera at the Coliseum
By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Ronald Samm - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Ronald Samm
English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Porgy – Eric Greene
Bess – Nicole Cabell
Crown – Nmon Ford
Serena – Latonia Moore
Clara – Nadine Benjamin
Maria – Tichina Vaughn
Jake – Donovan Singletary
Sporting Life – Frederick Ballentine
Mingo – Rheinaldt Tshepo Maagi
Robbins / Crabman – Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Peter – Ronald Samm
Frazier – Byron Jackson
Annie- Sarah-Jane Lewis
Lily – Pumza Mzinwa
Strawberry Woman – Nozuko Teto
Jim – Njabulo Madlala
Undertaker – Whitaker Mills
Nelson – Thando Mjandana
Scipio – Olufemi Alaka
Detective – Stephen Pallister
Policeman – Christian Hurst
Coroner – Neil Kelly

Coinductor – John Wilson
Director – James Robinson
Set designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume designer – Catherine Zuber
Lighting – Donald Holder
Choreographer – Dianne McIntyre
Video designer – Luke Halls

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess -  English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess -  English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

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