Idealized Realism: Porgy and Bess at English National Opera

Gershwin – Porgy and Bess

Porgy – Eric Greene
Bess – Nicole Cabell
Crown – Nmon Ford
Serena – Latonia Moore
Clara – Nadine Benjamin
Maria – Tichina Vaughn
Jake – Donovan Singletary
Sporting Life – Frederick Ballentine
Mingo – Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi
Robbins/Crab Man – Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Frazier – Byron Jackson
Annie – Sarah Jane Lewis
Strawberry Woman – Nozuko Teto
Jim – Njabulo Madlala
Undertaker – Whitaker Mills
Nelson – Thando Mjandana
Lily – Pumza Mxinwa
Detective – Stephen Pallister

Porgy and Bess Ensemble, English National Opera Orchestra / John Wilson.
Stage director – James Robinson

Tonight marked the premiere of English National Opera’s first ever production of Porgy and Bess.  To paraphrase the libretto, it’s been a long road to get there.  For this staging, the company recruited a specially-formed ensemble to provide the chorus, with singers from the UK, Germany, South Africa and the US among others.  Similarly, an international cast included veterans of performances of the work, such as Tichina Vaughn’s Maria, but also artists making role debuts, as was the case for Eric Greene in the title role and Nmon Ford as Crown.  The staging, a coproduction with De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Opera, was confided to James Robinson, Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre of St Louis.

Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Porgy is a work heady with the South Carolina heat.  It’s a gritty piece, one that has murder, drug abuse, poverty.  In many ways, it’s dated; in others, it’s a reminder of how the US has still to come to terms with its racist heritage.  Robinson plays it straight.  He sticks to the libretto at surface level, illustrating the events but never really seems to be interrogating them.  In a way, he gives us a sanitized, even feel-good vision of a world in which people struggled to survive – whether it be trying to raise money to bury their love ones, or putting themselves in danger in order to make a living.  This is a staging that definitely belongs to the Met – it’s good to look at, there’s a fair bit of standing and delivering, and everybody involved moves well.  Yet, I couldn’t help but leave the theatre tonight with a sense of the fact that the people whose stories are being told need and deserve more.  In a way, it should feel like a call to arms, to want to make the world a better place so that Bess can break free of the cycle of drug addiction and prostitution, so that Jake and Clara don’t have to sacrifice themselves in order to make a living.  Instead, we get a good show – one that I have no doubt sent many people on their way at the end of the evening with a spring in their step, but that I found difficult to reconcile.

Photo: © Tristram Kenton

It’s also partly an issue with the piece.  In the program book, Edward Seckerson, writes a robust defence of the work’s symphonic nature.  Even lightly cut, as it was here (sadly nobody informed the writers of the program notes that the opening blues would be cut) it lasts for well over three hours.  It often seems to feel like a succession of hits linked by a fair bit of somewhat more forgettable music.  That said, the score could not wish for a stronger advocate than John Wilson, who led an ENO Orchestra on magnificent form.  They sounded absolutely superb – the multicolour extravagance of Gershwin’s sound world coming to life with thrilling immediacy.  Wilson’s conducting felt unobtrusive – no faint praise, rather it felt so absolutely right.  The brass soared quite gloriously as Bess and Sporting Life headed to New York.  Stage and pit coordination was spot on, although I have no doubt that future performances in the run will see even more improvisatory freedom in the ‘promised land’ chorus for instance.

Photo: © Tristram Kenton

And what a chorus ENO has assembled for this production, forty-strong, they were on phenomenal form.  Given that the ensemble consisted of exciting young talents such as Sarah-Jane Lewis or Stuttgart ensemble member, Idunnu Münch, it’s no surprise that they gave us a massive wall of sound, rich and generous in tone.  The sopranos had such fabulous ease on top, closing that wonderful final chorus in a blaze of sound.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Tristram Kenton

In the huge cast, we had a number of extremely striking performances.  In the title role, Greene gave us an impassioned Porgy.  The voice is full and rich and he’s a deeply affecting actor.  Indeed, he used the physicality to illustrate Porgy’s frustrations most memorably.  If the top of the voice isn’t quite integrated into the rest, Greene used his considerable acting skills to marry the voice to his dramatic portrayal.  As his lover, Nicole Cabell had a somewhat more challenging assignment.  The role seems to sit on the low side for her and when she does have the chance to pull out that pearly top, it fills the theatre nicely.  She was also parked on the stage by Robinson a little too often, perhaps trying to illustrate how Bess didn’t quite fit in, but instead made Cabell look somewhat lost and under-directed.

Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Frederick Ballentine was a magnetic Sporting Life.  He has so much charisma on stage – frankly, I wanted to run off to New York with him too.  His ‘ain’t necessarily so’ had so much improvisatory fervour, it felt like he was the only person in the world who could sing it – and he was splendidly answered by the chorus.  His bright, easy tenor has wonderful sheen and was a pleasure to hear.  The registers in Tichina Vaughn’s mezzo may have separated but what is undimmed is her sheer stage presence, lighting up the stage with personality.  She also made so much of the text – rendering her ‘I hates yo’ struttin’ style’ into a tour de force that had Sporting Life quaking in his boots.  Latonia Moore’s Serena tore up the stage in ‘my man’s gone now’, giving her big number an extrovert abandon that was absolutely compelling.  Ford was an implacable Crown, sung in a firm, healthy baritone.  Nadine Benjamin, who unfortunately seemed to have suffered an injury on stage, sang a generous ‘summertime’, while Donovan Singletary displayed a baritone of exceptional handsomeness as Jake – definitely a singer I would like to hear again.  The remaining roles were all respectably taken.  There was no language coach specified in the program book and there was definitely a noticeable inconsistency in accents in the cast.  Stephen Pallister in the spoken role of the Detective sounded like he had just arrived in South Carolina from East London via Melbourne.

Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Musically, this was a first class evening with some tremendous performances within the large cast, a magnificent chorus and an orchestra on superlative form.  In that respect, it’s a triumph for ENO.  And yet, I wasn’t completely convinced by the staging.  There was far too much standing and delivering to the front and it didn’t succeed in dealing with the issues at the core of the piece, particularly in its portrayal of Bess, who never felt like a fully-developed character.  That said, getting to hear the piece performed so well is most certainly a privilege.

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