Masterpiece in the summer time

Tender moment: Sibongile Mngoma, who shares  the role of Bess, and Xolela Sixaba  as Porgy  Picture: Wayne Keet

Porgy and Bess

Cape Town Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WHATEVER Cape Two Opera have got plenty of, it certainly ain't nuttin' if this wonderful revival and relocation of George Gershwin's American masterpiece is anything to go by.

The CTO has moved Catfish Row, the fading old tenement at the heart of a poor, all-black fishing community on the rundown waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina around 1930 to  a fading old tenement at the heart etc . . . in the Western Cape in the 1970s.

Not that it makes a great deal of difference; poor, black communities are timeless and universal and for far too many the poverty and oppression of 1930 are still very much their way of life.

This production, directed by Christine Crouse, has stuck pretty much to the Gershwin original and although some of the language might sound a bit clunky and archaic now, it was the way the people of poor, waterfront Charleston talked back in 1930 making this an historical and social document as well as splendid entertainment.

It was echoed in the language of Steinbeck's characters in the likes of Cannery Row or found along Damon Runyon's Broadway, words fixed in a time and place..

The story is simple. Porgy is a crippled beggar who lives in Catfish Row and is being teased about fancying Bess, a drug addicted woman of somewhat loose morals. She is the woman of  your friendly, neighbourhood pimp, psychopath and bully, Crown, who apparently is also a stevedore.

When Crown kills Robbins, one of the Catfish residents, in a dispute over a dice game, he dumps Bess and goes on the run. With the police on their way and in the wings Crown's Moll is in big trouble until Porgy comes to her rescue as the only one to give her shelter - the start of a troubled affair.

 Like a bad penny Crown turns up again to claim his woman but the residents have had enough and he ends up murdered and Porgy is dragged off by police to identify the body.

While he his away local drug dealer Sportin' Life gets Bess back into her old cocaine snorting ways with free packets of Happy Dust.

Mixing drugs with dire warnings that Porgy could be jailed or even hanged he persuades her to go back to her old ways and run off with him to New York.

Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi.  who plays Bess

When Porgy returns and finds she has gone off with the local dealer he shows true love can move mountains, or hopefully at least get over them, as he sets out on his goat cart to find her to be with his Bess again.

So it is not really a happy ending – how many operas are? - but every chorus number will bring a smile or two. The singing, movement and infectious enthusiasm is just superb whether its is spirituals, gospel, blues or jazz or even a bit of classical here and there.

Perhaps that is the magic of Gershwin's score that it incorporates every aspect of American music of the 30s from the classical to Broadway musicals, from the black churches, gospel and spirituals work to field songs, blues and jazz. It is one of the few, if not the only opera to utilise a banjo. The Great American Songbook all in one box.

And there is one Great American Song in the opera which has been covered an estimated 33,000 times by groups and individuals, Summertime, with music by Gershwin and words by DuBose Heyward who also wrote the novel Porgy on which the opera is based.

The song, a lullby, has been recorded as blues, jazz, swing, rock and easy listening -even as a lullaby - by just about every artist who has made a record. It comes right at the start and is beautifully sung by soprano Philisa Sibeko playing Clara who sings it to her baby.

It is reprised later by Bess played by the striking Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi.

Maswanganyi really is a talent. She has a beautiful voice, can act and has that indefinable stage presence that sets the chosen few apart from the rest – mind you it does help that she is a bit of a stunner as well.

She brings vulnerability to the role of the hooker and drug addict trying hard to clean up her act and live a normal life and become part of the Catfish community perhaps expressed best when she breaks into the lively gospel song Oh, the Train is at de Station after the murder of Robbins.

Against her frailty we have Porgy, the cripple on his goat cart played by Xolela Sixaba who sports a huge bass-baritone voice. Sixaba is a big lad all round and fills the enormous Hippodrome stage with both his presence and immensely powerful voice. His I got plenty o' nuttin' is one of the highlights of the show. It would be nice though to hear a softer side to his voice sometimes rather than just his undoubted power.

There are other big characters as well, baritone Ntobeko Rwanqa as the baddy Crown, who got some well deserved boos at the end – we all like a good baddy who can really sing.

Then there is contralto Miranda Tina who belts them out like a good 'un as Maria who runs the local shop-come-café-come-bar.

Soprano Arline Jaftha is the godfaring Serena who leads the cast in the Gospel inspired Oh Doctor Jesus  and gives us a plaintive My Man's Gone Now when husband Robbins is killed by Crown.

There is baritone Aubrey Lodewyk as the fisherman Jake with the work song It take a long pull to get there and out there on the fringe of society is Sportin' Life, the local spiv and cocaine dealer played by tenor Victor Ryan Robertson with his wonderful It Ain't Necessarily So.

The Show is full of movement and colour with the magic of George Gershwin's score and a chorus who bring very scene to life

The set by Michael Mitchell is simple and flexible while the choreography by Sibonakaliso Ndaba is always lively and full of action.

There was real interest down in the pit where the orchestra, in association with Welsh National Opera, conducted by Albert Horne, who is also the chorus maser,  was made up with the same numbers, instruments and orchestrations as the Broadway Premiere of 1935. You can't get much more authentic than that.

If there is a fault it is with the opera rather than the performance where the characters are not fully rounded nor is the story quite as full or explained as much as it might have been while odd bits and scenes seem to be chucked in, such as a honey man or crab seller, which add nothing but minutes to the performance.

Despite all the authenticity and fine performances you can see why there are lingering doubts about whether the opera is now patronising and even racist; perhaps in creating an opera about the Deep South in the 1920s and 30s the characters in 2012 are  now seen as stereotypes, but then as now, that was never the intention. Strip away the politics and hints of political correctness and you are left with a landmark in American and world music and opera, a historical drama, social commentary and magnificent entertainment -  all rolled into one in just under three hours.

Roger Clarke

FEATURE - Rich daddies and easy livin'

Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin and book and lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, has had controversy as a bedfellow since it was first performed in 1935. The idea of an all black cast did not go down well with all of white society while some black groups then, as now, saw it as patronising and full of stereotypes.

As the civil rights movement grew the opera was condemned as racist with Harry Belafonte refusing to play Porgy in the 1950 film. Sidney Poitier took the role instead. The fact it gave a chance to hundreds of black actors and encouraged generations of black classically trained singers was lost in the argument, as was the fact that on tour in 1936, after pressure from the cast, it became the first performance of any show to be given to a integrated audience in the National Theatre in Washington – a major landmark in the fight for civil rights and an end to segregation.

Even its place as an opera was not certain. Despite being written as an opera it has been performed far more as a Broadway musical and despite Gershwin being an all-American music hero, a composer of world stature, it was not produced by an American opera company until Huston Grand Opera took it on in 1976. For perhaps the first time it was seen and accepted as a fully-fledged opera. It was 1985 before the Metropolitan Opera finally staged it in New York, 50 years after its premiere, and a year later came Trevor Nunn's acclaimed production at Glyndebourne.

Meanwhile the current Diane Paulus adaptation of Porgy and Bess is running on Broadway and  received 10 Tony nominations  picking up two awards - for Best Revival of a Musical and for the best performance by a musical actress—its female lead, Audra McDonald.

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