George Gershwin’s masterpiece is revealed in all its splendour by ENO’s sprightly new co-production
Commitment-phobe: Eric Greene as Porgy and Nicole Cabell as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” (©Tristram Kenton/ENO)
George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has unleashed arguments about colour and power since its inaugural performance in 1935 — and spent a good few of those years on the naughty step of progressive wisdom. The prosecution case is that Gershwin’s folkloric treatment of black Americans in the early 1900s is a heap of stereotypes: “The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western world,” tutted one prominent African-American scholar on encountering it. Unease about Gershwin’s show-boating of a hardscrabble black American community’s problems led the work to fall out of favour with much of the civil rights movement.
Forward to 2018, when the theatre is both galvanised and confused by who should play what role and gender- and race-blind castings are moving from exception to norm: the questions it raises about how to present the work now feel timely. “White folk lock me up, white folk let me out,” announces one of the incidental victims of random punishment. In DuBose Heyward’s libretto (based on his 1925 novel) the injustices of the plot are portrayed as a clear successor to slavery. Although the characters can be accused of looking like a white man’s understanding of black America, Heyward, a native of Charleston, grew up close to the precarious world he evokes.
The Gershwin estate has always insisted that the opera be performed by a black cast and in its entirety (totalling three hours). For a production on this scale, it’s sourcing the cast widely — here from (inter alia) the US, Britain and South Africa.
It also means that a work which sits somewhere between musical theatre and opera has the length of the latter but feels more like a magic box of great songs, underpinned by limited dramatic action. It’s the American equivalent of Brecht’s Happy End: great tunes, shame about the action. Actually, Porgy’s roots in the drama of misaligned lovers and fateful mischance have the essence of a good yarn, but the gaps in characterisation and plot do need a big dose of brio to cover over the tendency for the story to gallop from one misfortune to the next.
English National Opera has gambled on offsetting the losses of some productions with musical theatre offerings tempting enough to fill the cavernous interior of London’s second opera house. It’s an idea rich in potential — and jeopardy. Fortunately, this sprightly version (a co-production with the New York Met and Dutch National Opera) has the dynamism and commitment to rise above the story’s shortcomings. It’s usually a bad sign for a production if reviewers start talking about the set rather than the cast, but Michael Yeargan’s shanty town, revolving sets and a restrained use of computer-generated imagery bring us the Mississipi backdrop to Catfish Row. The work’s choral might (its great strength, beside the hits) gives us a sense of a community by turns hopeful and despairing as it contends with poverty, disaster and, just occasionally, something going right.
If we all know the songs, from the blissful crooning of “Summertime” to “I Loves You, Porgy”, it’s good to be reminded of the context. And the joyous gospel number “A Train’s a Coming” is sung after the widow of a man the anti-hero Crown (Nmon Ford) has killed in a drunken brawl has had to grovel before the undertaker to get a cut-price funeral. Emotion and anger are cheek by jowl in the work and sometimes a bit uncomfortably. It leaves us unsure as to whether the gospel chorus of townspeople are commentators — the Greek chorus of Catfish Row — or characters we need to care about.
As Porgy, Eric Greene, a rangy American singer-actor, has by far the most vocal and acting weight to lift throughout the evening — not least because his role as beggar defined by his lameness means he has to drag a dead leg around the ENO’s vast stage on crutches while belting out some of the great heart-tugging tunes of the production. I thought he was great — impassioned, defiant and purblind in his adoration of irresolute Bess.
Nicole Cabell plays our hopeless heroine as the emotional wreckage of Crown’s abusive control and recidivist addiction to the mis-named “happy dust” of cocaine. It’s a slippery part, because Bess is so obviously a disaster zone from the get-go, when she’s powerless to stop her bullying paramour from knifing an innocent man to death. It’s a lot easier to believe in her as a victim of circumstances which have turned her into a parasitical commitment-phobe than it is to trust that her love for poor Porgy could stay the course.
James Robinson’s visually enchanting production understands how to make the most of outstanding visual moments — the steamer puffs fading as we realise that Bess will break her promise to Porgy, when she re-encounters sexy Crown in the thickets of Savannah. The drug dealer Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) in his Stevie Wonder white cap is the seedy-seductive purveyor of the showstopper “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. The dance set-pieces under Dianne McIntyre’s assured choreography are a joy. And yes, you can complain that poverty in the South never looked this picturesque, but Porgy and Bess is a fable built around a core of song, not a rounded dramatic work.
Those who love it understand that and aspire to make its best jewels sparkle. ENO took a substantial risk on this show after a period of insecure financing and a switchback cast of artistic directors it could ill afford to lose. It was the brainchild of John Berry, the ambitious if spendthrift former artistic director, and has since been nurtured by his successors at ENO. It is an institution which attracts the headline “troubled”, but under its chairman Harry Brunjes it has shown real grit in the past five years, refining its mission to bring works in English to a wider audience. The flair of Porgy shows that the blend of opera and musical theatre can pay off and give a new generation of singers a chance to revive Gershwin’s grand Southern patchwork.