The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is the origination of many musical favourites from I Love You Porgy to Summertime ‘Probably the most covered song in the history of popular music’ says Edward Seckerson, musical critic. So watching this production; which is the first performance of Porgy and Bess by the English National Opera (ENO), you have a sense of familiarity.
Porgy and Bess is a very good choice
Being in the audience of Porgy and Bess reminded me of the first time I watched the production in 2007 produced by Trevor Nunn. The excitement of seeing a rarity, an all-black cast on the stage in a west end theatre, was diminished when I watched the production. The story of Porgy and Bess is a snap shot of black southern life in 1920s South Carolina. It follows the tangled and volatile love and lust of Porgy, Bess and Crown. Bess is beautiful and a ‘bad’ woman – drink, drugs and fast men. Porgy is a big hearted cripple – lonely and in love with Bess from afar. Circumstances unfurl to bring Bess and Porgy together…for a while.
While the story is absorbing, the one dimensional portrayal of southern black people is distracting. As a white woman sitting next to me said ‘I like this but it is quite racist isn’t it, it leaves me quite uncomfortable.’ I wasn’t about to have a full blown discussion, however her observation was exactly how I also felt and was how I had felt the first time I saw it. At that time I had pushed my response aside and left feeling vaguely disappointed though the cast at the time were excellent. I am able to recognise my reaction and name it now.
This is, I assume, a product of its time and a representation of the perception of the writers of Porgy and Bess, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. The score was produced by George and Ira Gershwin. It was a real passion project for George, who worked hard to transform the Heyward’s novel, Porgy into the Opera we see today. In regards to the writing, much like current day debates, one can ask if a writer is not of the culture or at least has a real understanding of a culture can they write meaningful three dimensional characters representing them? The jury is still out and if there was any flaw with Porgy and Bess, for me, it would be the portrayal and lack of agency the characters displayed.
That said artistic director James Robinson of the Opera Theatre of St Louis draws the best out of his cast which includes an ensemble of 40 singers who have been recruited globally spanning the UK, US, South Africa, Germany and New Zealand. They work together harmoniously creating a visually beautiful and vocally moving production. The inclusion of Rachel Oyawale, an 18-year-old student and the youngest main stage chorister in ENO’s history, provides an inspirational touch to the Opera.
Each element of the production has been crafted to provide layer upon layer of meaning and experience
Conductor John Wilson ensures the audience is taken on a journey via the music which is as strong and present as any character in the cast. Each element of the production has been crafted to provide layer upon layer of meaning and experience, Dianne McIntyre’s choreographer is key in bringing the life and culture of the time to life. There are moments of posed stillness that bring to mind the famous paintings by Ernie Barnes such as Sugar Shack, the feeling of people caught in the midst of being completely one with the time and place they are in.
The movement, voices, attractive flexibility of Michael Yeargan’s set transport the audience to Catfish Row and despite my reservations towards some of the depth of characterisation, Porgy and Bess is very enjoyable.
As a night out or an opportunity to gain a degree of insight into perceptions by outsiders of southern black lives and loves, Porgy and Bess is a very good choice.