(I’d give it 10-star if I could!)
Gershwin’s twentieth-century American opera, Porgy and Bess isn’t performed often enough in the UK. Luckily, last night marked the opening of one of the hottest shows to see in London, right now, at the English National Opera (ENO). The production is a collaboration with Dutch National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
This ravishing opera is directed by James Robinson, with designers Michael Yeargan, Donald Holder, Catherine Zuber and choreographer Dianne McIntyre. It’s a mighty collaboration full of glorious voices, jazz, gospel and symphonic music. Conductor John Wilson and the orchestra embodied the sublime score of Gershwin. Their virtuosic playing of the music was simply heavenly.
Set in Catfish Row, South Carolina, Porgy and Bess explore the ties in a close-knit African American community, battling with race, everyday subjugation and sexism in the 1920s era. The rotating stage sees the people of Catfish Row surviving and struggling in their poor-ridden homes, standing lifeless without walls. Yet it is the community that fills each others’ lives with hope and joy. The opera has an all-black cast which has over 40 singers, some from the UK with others flown in from New Zealand, US, Germany and South Africa. They all performed wonderfully as part of the cast and ensemble and none of them sang a note off-key.
Baltimore-born baritone Eric Greene performs the lead role of Porgy, our crippled beggar, but in this production, he is our hero. Greene has an overwhelming presence on stage, embodying a physically weak yet mentally strong Porgy. His voice is so potently rich that it can grab the attention of hundreds and make them stop whatever they are doing and listen. His performance of ‘ I got plenty o’ nuttin’ brought the house down on the opening night, and it is hard to hold back the tears in his exquisite rendition of ‘Bess, you is my woman now’.
Bess, although seen to be the opera’s heroine, is a troubled woman of colour living in a society run by men, denying woman rights or any form of female agency. Soprano Nicole Cabell encapsulates Bess’s vulnerability, being pushed and pulled by various forces: love, sex, violence and drug abuse. Cabell also presented Bess’s weaknesses through her gorgeous and beautifully-rounded voice, full of sentiment and emotion.
Latonia Moore’s Serena gives a touching performance too. She provides some of the most heart-wrenching songs including ‘My man’s gone now’ and the hopeful prayer to ‘O Doctor Jesus.’ Bess’s violent lover, Crown sees Nmon Ford take to the role effortlessly. Sitting in the audience, one could feel how mentally unstable and frightening Crown’s character can be, yet, on the other hand, Ford manages to show a charming, macho and ‘bad boy’ side to Crown, giving some visibility to the reasons why Bess has a soft spot for him. And Ford’s voice is astonishing.
From the outset, Nadine Benjamin gives a marvellous rendition of ‘Summer Time’. Her voice is a perfect opening for the opera! Often ‘Summer Time’ is performed by sopranos as a standalone song at various concerts, yet here was one of the rare occasions to experience ‘Summer Time’ as part of the opera and Benjamin made it completely worthwhile.
Frederick Ballentine provides an electrifying and memorable performance of ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ as the drug dealer, Sportin’ Life. It’s a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek song that gets the cast and ensemble moving and dancing on the stage. Ultimately, there are plenty of talented singers and performers on the ENO stage. (Simply too many names to mention here.) But I reiterate – this is the hottest show to see in London right now. Catch it before it becomes a sold-out production.
Porgy and Bess is showing at the ENO now until November 14. Please head to the ENO website and get your ticket now. #ENOPorgy