The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess, Cape Town Opera, Royal Festival Hall, London

4.00

After Trevor Nunn’s futile attempt to turn The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess into a book and song musical how bracing to return to the through-sung original where only the whites get to speak – or rather are denied the gift of song.

After Trevor Nunn’s futile attempt to turn The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess into a book and song musical how bracing to return to the through-sung original where only the whites get to speak – or rather are denied the gift of song. But there’s an added edge to this touring Cape Town Opera presentation roaring semi-staged into London before heading north to Edinburgh later this week and it comes from an abiding sense of streetwise familiarity. There may be more Jewish than African music in Porgy and Bess but the aspiring spirit of community runs deep in the piece and this company doesn’t just recognise but live it.

There really is no substitute for the kind of collective fervour they bring to Robbins’ wake, Arline Jaftha’s searing Serena dredging the anguished chest tones in “My Man’s Gone Now”, the chorus ensuring a rousing send-off for the train leaving for the Promised Land. That’s where George Gershwin really plugged in his hotline to the Gospel experience and made it swing.

Conductor David Charles Abell nailed this and every other hot-spot with keenness and self-evident love, steering the tightened narrative with a great sense of its imperative whilst relishing through his instinctive feeling for tempo-rubato the score’s aching lyricism. He might have made even more of the huge moment where Porgy first opens his door to the outcast Bess and really let his three trumpets rip through the orchestral pay-off to “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” but with a band of precisely the same proportions as that which occupied the pit at the opera’s premiere there was no doubting the authenticity.

The voices gave credence to that feeling. No musical theatre piece entices us in with anything quite as ravishing as “Summertime” and Pretty Yende, true to her name, was special in it. What a talent she is. Then there was Lisa Daltirus’ Bess, opulent and then some, embracing the arching phrases of the two great love duets, the perfect complement to Xolela Sixaba’s Porgy – rich, weathered, craggy. Victor Ryan Robertson’s Sportin’ Life had the ringing money notes to turn any weak woman’s head while Miranda Tini’s mountainous Maria saw him off, and how, with her “rap” prototype “I Hates Your Struttin’ Style”. Not that you could entirely catch her drift. The evening’s one serious problem was word clarity.

Still there was something deeply affecting about the way in which this ensemble pulled together and as they whooped their traditional encouragement to Porgy setting off on his impossible mission you really believed he might actually make it to New York.

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