Semi-staged shouldn’t necessarily mean semi-skimmed, as the Philharmonia demonstrated earlier this month with Wozzeck, but unfortunately this acclaimed Cape Town Opera production of Porgy and Bess does curdle somewhat in its RFH miniaturisation.
The much-discussed Soweto setting is barely evident on the little square box that passes for a stage, with only some bright costumes and a couple of Afrikaans cops to remind us we’re not in Carolina anymore. Gone are the colours of Catfish Row with its busy, bustling ensembles; in its place we have an evening of cramped head-to-heads and a ragged-looking choir.
Yet the stripped-down visuals do allow for one revelation: for all its melodic luxury, Porgy and Bess is a decidedly unoperatic opera – not because it’s a jumped-up musical (the usual charge) but because the protagonists’ dramatic trajectory is so imprecise. Gershwin himself cited Carmen as his model, yet what could be clearer than the entwined fates of Bizet’s heroine and Don José? What, by contrast, could be less straightforward than the attraction between down-at-heel Porgy and shabby tramp Bess? There may be psychological honesty in Bess’s drug-fuelled surrender to Sportin’ Life, but can the same be said of Porgy’s final departure in search of his lost love? The man is an unrepentant killer, not some questing hero of legend.
Opera as an art form depends on starker approaches to characterisation than the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward provide in their depiction of complex, flawed humanity. Feet of clay and faltering emotions may dominate the theatre of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, but they sit uncomfortably amid the certainties of mock spirituals and ravishing love duets.
What of the performers, though? They’re probably terrific, judging from the fragments that made it across the orchestral surge. Far too often, though, audibility is plenty o’ nuttin’. Whoever took the decision to place David Charles Abell and his 44-strong band in front of the singers overlooked the taming effect of an opera house pit. Oh for a few discreet microphones… but I was forgetting, Porgy and Bess is not a musical, and we must be doctrinaire about such things. If it were Show Boat, that would be another matter.
Such poor presentation is doubly disappointing when the singers are so good. Lisa Daltirus’s Bess is honeyed, passionate and powerful. Xolela Sixaba’s rich bass-baritone makes him the ideal Porgy, although his commitment to the character’s disability is a distraction in this setting. Victor Ryan Robertson brings showbiz pizzazz to Sportin’ Life, albeit at too restricted a volume, and Zukiswa Tsewu provides a minute of magic in her Strawberry Woman cameo. The list of fine performances goes on, and it includes a wonderfully rhythmic chorus who afford countless delights. They evoke memories of Impempe Yomlingo, the African Magic Flute that brought such joy to London a year or two back.
Abell conducts with a Broadway swagger, and the rousing applause suggests that at least some of the production’s magic communicated itself to the audience. But it would have been so much more effective had the producers dispensed with the staging alogether and ranged the singers in front of the orchestra where they could give it out loud and strong.
- Mark Valencia