When George Gershwin first brought his ‘American folk opera’ Porgy and Bess to the stage in 1935, as with all truly ground-breaking works, it struggled to find its audience. Accused of depicting a “white man’s view” of the down-trodden life of the African American in the deep south, it courted controversy from day one, and the virtually all-black cast was a brave artistic choice at a time when segregation was still the norm in the United States. Also diminished by cuts to the score made by Gershwin himself after overlong try-outs prior to its Broadway opening, the piece failed to impress the ‘legitimate’ opera-going community.
Thankfully the years have been kinder, and successive revivals that have restored the original score to the work originally envisaged have won over its fiercest critics. Porgy is now quite rightfully considered a classic. Unique for its time in that it blends traditional European arias and recitatives, with soaring jazz chords, black folk songs, blues and gospel, it is widely recognised as a masterpiece, and acknowledged that Gershwin mastered a totally new art form with Porgy – the American opera.
Based on an original book by DuBose Hayward, who himself lived in Charleston, South Carolina, where the fictional “Catfish Row” is set, the story follows the lives of the community living in the slums of Charleston. Particularly that of Porgy, a disabled beggar – scratching a living from crap games – and his attempts to save his beloved Bess from the clutches of the cruel and violent Crown, and the low-life, manipulative dope peddler ‘Sporting Life’.
The extra-ordinary Cape Town Opera’s new production swaps the run-down tenements of 1920s Charleston for a 1970s Soweto township, in the shadow of Apartheid. Under the sharp direction of Christine Rouse, the usual operatic tale of love, loss and vengeance is played out, but a rich vein of community spirit and faith running through it, and a superb chorus -especially the sopranos - lifts the otherwise simple story to epic and almost over-whelming proportions.
From the opening bars of the first beguiling aria, “Summertime”, sung beautifully by Nozuko Teto (Clara) as a lullaby to the baby sleeping in her arms, you know you are in for a feast of emotions and exquisite sounds. Several Gershwin classics follow; “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" (in a first rate performance from Victor Ryan Robertson as the slimey, conniving Sporting Life); interspersed with stunning choral laments and spine-tingling spirituals; and some fantastic solos. Gloria Bosman’s Maria gets the best of the comedy on offer, and gives a spirited “I Hates Your Struttin’ Style”, and Nkosazana Dimande (Serena) delivers a heart-stopping, achingly real “My Man’s Gone Now” over the body of her slain husband.
As Porgy, Otto Maidi’s rich bass baritone voice dominates the stage, and blends well with the sweet-but-sassy soprano Sibongile Mngoma (Bess), coming together beautifully in the sublime "Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and "I Loves You, Porgy”.
Ntobeko Rwanqa (Crown) makes an imposing, and believable villain, and the superb ensemble cast also includes creditable performances from Aubrey Lodewyk (Jake) and Mthunzi Mbombela (Robbins).
The Porgy and Bess Orchestra, in association with Welsh National Opera, lead by Helena Wood, and conducted by Tim Murray, do a grand job providing a full bodied and rich sound in the dramatic set-pieces and arias, and the lightest of touches in a series of leitmotifs. Michael Mitchell’s designs, Sibonakaliso Ndaba’s choreography and Albert Horne’s chorus add a real authenticity and context.
Un-amplified vocals always struggle to reach the upper reaches of the Mayflower auditorium and this is sadly the case with some of the performers in Porgy - especially when positioned up stage. This makes some of the words difficult to catch at times, although helpful surtitles (when technical gremlins permit) do enable you to keep up with the narrative, and the glorious score is so entrancing that it hardly seems to matter.
Cape Town Opera are a unique and exciting company, and this electrifying and stunning piece of theatre makes you ache to see more of their repertoire. Let us hope they return to the south coast very soon.
Porgy and Bess - at the Southampton Mayflower until Saturday 7 July.