OPERA / Every shade of blue: Edward Seckerson reviews Trevor Nunn's unlifting production of Porgy and Bess at Covent Garden

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The Independent Culture
THEY still talk about the night that Catfish Row came to Glyndebourne back in the summer of 1986. It's taken a little longer (57 years) to reach Covent Garden for the first time, but from Friday's reception you'd have thought that we'd just witnessed the second coming, not the first. The final moments of Trevor Nunn's uplifting Glyndebourne production give Gershwin's Porgy more dignity than even Broadway's optimists might ever have imagined. Pride and self-respect have made him whole again: he throws away his crutches, his friends and neighbours line his path, and the crumbling tenement (designer John Gunter) opens like the Red Sea on to 'the promised land'. And so Porgy leaves the womb of his people to head for that city of immigrants and broken dreams: Gershwin's New York. Simple but unforgettable - because Nunn's whole-hearted staging has to that moment communicated so rich a sense of 'community': his Catfish Row teems with incident - larger, rosier, cosier than real life. But that's Broadway for you - and Nunn never lets us forget it.

Irving Berlin once wrote: 'The rest of us were songwriters. George was a composer.' He had a point. The real wonder of Porgy and Bess is that musical techniques barely touched upon in previous Gershwin shows (through-composition, motivic use of themes) are here so well developed. How he was able to absorb so much and yet remain so uncompromisingly his own man is testament to his genius. The spirituals, the gospel chants, the impulsive bodily rhythms of the Negro culture seem to cross-fertilise here with the Hebraic strains, the jazz and burlesque of Gershwin's own roots, not to mention harmonic hints of composers as disparate as Ravel and Berg. Suffusing it all, though, are the many shades of Gershwin blue: urban blues, rural blues, tender, anguished, and ecstatic blues.

You have to know instinctively about the ache, the ebb and flow, the innate syncopations of this score to conduct it half-decently. Andrew Litton, the all-American hero in the pit, did a whole lot better than that. The explosive vamping of the introduction gave notice of his fire and drive and desire to swing. He wrenched out the drama, the emotional hot-spots - like the searing trumpet-led release as Porgy opens his door to Bess for the very first time. The big lyric effusions readily sang, much-loved phrases lifted and floated to give his principals room to embrace them. A few dropped stitches apart, Litton can pride himself on having shown his orchestra the way to the style and fascinating rhythm of this music: the brassy big-band break at the close of 'There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York' was no respecter of the house.

As to his vibrant, beautifully integrated company, it is a credit to Nunn's direction and the energy of the ensemble-playing that one sharply drawn character after another seemed to emerge almost imperceptibly from the fabric of the community: Tinuke Olafimihan's Clara, whose 'Summertime' first draws us in; Marietta Simpson's life-and-soul Maria, whose tirade against Sportin' Life must be the original 'Rap' number; and Cynthia Clarey's Serena, whose wailing cadenzas soar from the wake scene like the voice of all bereaved. Many of this cast have, of course, lived with, and through, their characters since Glyndebourne: Willard White's majestic, unsentimental Porgy, Cynthia Haymon's passionate but weak- willed Bess, and their tormentors - Gregg Baker's incredible hulk of a Crown, and Damon Evans's Sportin' Life, still selling the dope and dreams with well-practised razzle-dazzle. But ultimately, of course, it's the sound of this company - of massed voices raised fervently as one. And if that doesn't stir you, nothing will.

Royal Opera House to 7 Nov (returns only: 071-240 1066); Birmingham NEC Arena 22 Nov (021-782 0000)

(Photograph omitted)

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