Gershwin's “folk opera” has been and in and out of style since it was premiered in 1935 but, thanks to productions like this one by Cape Town Opera, it will always be relevant. By transporting the action from South Carolina to South Africa, the poverty and segregation at its heart are made more immediately accessible to 21st century audiences, and songs like “Summertime” and “I got plenty o' nuttin'” are always going to be earworms.
This particular production is set around a series of run-down, scaffolded houses, enclosed by wire and fences, and the versatile set manages to conjure up a whole community. The director Christine Crouse has assembled an incredible cast, capable of generating an unbelievable amount of power when they sing as one. Individually though, they are just as impressive.
None more so than Xolela Sixaba playing Porgy who turns in an astonishing performance, not just vocally. Yes, his singing is indeed amazing, but playing a crippled beggar this large man spends the whole show shuffling about on his knees – no mean feat. That he is able to produce such a gorgeous, rich bass-baritone while his upper half is compressed and constricted is a marvel.
Sibongile Mngoma is his Bess, and portrays a women torn between the quiet life and one chasing the “happy dust” that has held her hostage for so long. It's a cliché for reviewers to say “everyone was excellent”, because terrified of upsetting someone, and it infuriates me when people do it. However, in this case, I have to follow in their footsteps, because in this production everyone truly is excellent.
That goes for the main characters like Sportin' Life (a slimey Tshepo Moagi) through to ensemble members including the wonderful Ernestine Stuurman. With such a large cast on stage for so much of the time, there is plenty of opportunity to pick out unnecessary players, but in this version, everyone who is on stage is there for a reason, and even characters in the background are always doing something, even if just a tiny fraction of the audience can see them.
Throughout the three-hour production, the cast's joy, sadness and exuberance is palpable.
The only weaknesses in this show lie in the original story, which the Cape Town Opera can hardly be held accountable for, and the score remains slightly unbalanced: the “hits” from the show stand out among the traditional opera like cartoon slapstick punctuating a otherwise impenetrable existential French psychodrama.