Porgy and Bess, English National Opera, Coliseum review: Splendid vehicle honours Gershwin’s ambition

Gershwin’s characterisation may be at times crude, but here the action still feels properly mythical

Michael Church
Friday 12 October 2018 15:07
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Mired in trouble thanks to a series of avoidable but calamitous artistic misjudgements, English National Opera desperately needs a wise hand on the tiller. And if its three-way co-production of Porgy and Bess with the New York Met and Dutch National Opera is evidence of that, so much the better. This show makes a splendid vehicle for the towering work which would probably have led to more, had Gershwin not died so tragically young.

It’s traditional in the sense that director James Robinson and designer Michael Yeargan have not sought in any way to stylise the piece, or give it a political spin (after all, with its Grapes of Wrath undertones, it doesn’t need one); the pullulating waterfront tenements, the storms, the healing sun – everything has a vivid immediacy. By projecting light through the designs on his gauzy front-cloth and the skeletal shapes of the wooden houses behind, Yeargan has discovered how to make this invented world seem transparent, and out of time.

Gershwin’s characterisation may be at times crude, but here the action still feels properly mythical. Nmon Ford’s Crown is a savagely amoral version of Don Giovanni to whom Nicole Cabell’s somewhat under-powered Bess is helplessly drawn, especially when Frederick Ballentine’s insinuating Sporting Life feeds her the ‘happy dust’ which these oppressed Southerners use to make their lot more tolerable. The addictive sado-masochistic relationship between Crown and Bess is poignantly done. Meanwhile, Eric Greene as the disabled Porgy is a nobly convincing creation: his baritone seems initially too light to bear the weight his role puts on it, but as the evening progresses he gains in power and authority.

But the chief marvel of this production lies in the mostly black chorus. Drawn from America, South Africa, and New Zealand, this comes together as a community in which every member has an allotted role, but Robinson’s direction has them playing together seamlessly, with even the children being without a shred of self-conscious stagyness. Latonia Moore’s religious Serena and Tichina Vaughn’s feisty Maria are just two of the characters who intermittently surge out in bold relief. And when the chorus sings full-blast – as in the climactic rendering of ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ – the effect is electrifying. The fights, the murder, the funeral, the prayer-meetings – everything is hyper-real.

From the moment when Nadine Benjamin launches into her sweet rendition of "Summertime", Gershwin’s bewitching string of solos and duets comes over with assurance; one of its high points is a snatch of vocal grace from Nozuko Teto as the Strawberry Woman. Playing under John Wilson’s direction, the orchestra valiantly honours Gershwin’s ambition to combine the drama and romance of Carmen with the beauty of Die Meistersinger. That may have been a trifle over-hopeful on his part, but with its masterly dovetailing of voices and instruments, this show does him proud.

Porgy and Bess runs until 17 November; eno.org

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