Trevor Nunn’s musical adaptation of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic jazz opera Porgy and Bess opened last night (9 November 2006, previews from 25 October) at the West End’s Savoy Theatre (See Today’s 1st Night Photos). Originally a novel by DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess is set in 1912 South Carolina, around Charleston's Catfish Row, and centres on cripple Porgy who offers shelter to Bess, recently broken free from her brutish lover.
Nunn, who directed the opera at Glyndebourne with Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in 1986, now directs Clarke Peters and Nicola Hughes in the title roles, leading a 40-strong cast that also features Cornell S John (as Crown), Dawn Hope (Serena) and OT Fagbenle (Sportin’ Life). The new £3 million musical production has a score specially adapted by Gareth Valentine.
Overnight critics were almost entirely won over by the opera’s transformation into a more accessible musical, and they admired the performances of the ensemble cast who, most felt, captured the tight-knit community. There was particularly high praise for Clarke Peters as Porgy. While most enjoyed seeing the story given a musical kick, some were less enamoured with the “plastered on” detail and “unconvincing” editing of the Gershwins’ original opera.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) – “Porgy and Bess is the most glorious score and Trevor Nunn’s Glyndebourne production 20 years ago was simply magnificent. Yet the new ‘musical’ version… is a disappointment. Decently sung but unconvincingly edited… It’s a lowbrow hybrid, or highbrow lowbred…. Nunn is a master of bringing a community alive on the stage, but the detail seems plastered on to both the major performances and John Gunter’s design. Organic is not a word I like all that much as a critical term, but organic is what the show does not feel like.
The other big problem is the sound system. I never felt I was hearing the voices raw and true…. There’s a microphoning conduit that gets in the way all the time
Peters is an anguished, tortured Porgy… and sings a beautiful light baritone counterpoint to Cornell S John’s tremendously threatening bass Crown. On the other apex of the romantic triangle, Nicola Hughes is a technically powerful but curiously unengaging Bess…. Certain performers, apart from Mr Peters, stand out: Dawn Hope as a serene Serena, Lorraine Velez as Clara, Ruby King as the strawberry woman.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “By transforming the opera into a West End musical, reducing its four hours to three in the process, isn’t the director dumbing down a masterpiece? There are good answers to that, mainly that Porgy and Bess is now more accessible to far more people… and last night Nunn and his cast proved most of those answers better than good. True, we don’t always get the rich orchestral texture of the original. True, there’s occasional recitative that’s diminished by being spoken rather than sung… It’s true, too, that George Gershwin’s wonderful opening song, ‘Summertime’, suffers slightly from being delivered in a lower register than the opera demands. But Nunn’s company brings enormous energy and plenty of class to Ira Gershwin’s libretto…. Clarke Peters can’t quite match the singing power of Willard White…. but he’s a fine actor and much more than adequate when he shares a forlorn love-song with Nicola Hughes’ Bess…. And from the moment he stumbles in, as raggedy and rough-looking as the part-time beggar he is, he refuses to sentimentalise a role that half-invites him to do so. Meanwhile, Hughes finds dignity as well as a touching vulnerability.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “Electrifying is an overworked word in the critical lexicon, but if ever a show deserved it, it is Trevor Nunn's magnificent revival of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess…. What is beyond doubt is that this is a masterpiece of the first order…. Gone is the recitative and in comes good, robust (and often witty) dialogue. There is vibrant dancing that pulses with sassiness and sex…. there is also such a thing as hyperactivity… Nunn occasionally piles on the atmosphere (in the storm scene, say) and sometimes overdoes the cultural texture (the black folks in Catfish Row always a-basket-weaving, or a-net-mending etc etc) to the point of faint absurdity. Less might be more and the adrenaline levels could do with coming down a notch. But, oh, the sheer bliss of experiencing a work that is a sublime succession of some of the greatest songs ever written…. The chorus work in this production is out of this world… Non-operatic voices might not be to everyone's taste, but Clarke Peters is wonderfully moving as Porgy even when under some vocal strain, and Nicola Hughes is fabulous as Bess.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “Having directed it as an opera in 1986, Nunn now treats it as a musical; which means that book-dialogue replaces recitatives, and you have a 20-strong orchestra rather than one of more than 50. The decision seems to me entirely correct. A work which sounded thin-textured at Covent Garden now emerges in an intimate theatre, under Gareth Valentine's musical supervision, as melodically ebullient; and it's a pleasure to listen once again to such standards as ‘Summertime’, ‘It Ain't Necessarily So’, and ‘Bess, You Is My Woman’. But a great masterpiece? I don't think so…. The book… teems with more characters than it can handle. Dramatic action is also sometimes poorly motivated…. If the show now seems a museum-piece, Nunn's production invests it with social detail. The cast is also top-notch. Clarke Peters lends Porgy a dignity and strength, and Nicola Hughes’ Bess moves from whiskey-sozzler to child-rearer with ease. There is magnificent support from OT Fagbenle as a venomous Sporting Life, Dawn Hope as a grief-stricken widow, and Cornell S John as the rapacious Crown. Everything about the staging is fine.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Although almost everyone acknowledges that Nunn is a great director, brevity is not normally regarded as one of his virtues. Here however he has finally discovered that less can mean more, and though some may accuse him of dumbing down, I think they would be wrong…. Watching this vibrant show one doesn’t feel one is watching a reduced opera, but rather discovering a lost classic musical. The show reveals Nunn at his best…. He creates a seething sense of community, love and loss that is visually virtuosic and overpoweringly moving…. The music sounds terrific… and the ensemble singing is I think the finest I have heard in the West End…. The production also reveals the strength in depth of black performers in this country… there’s some terrific choreography from Jason Pennycooke. Clarke Peters is superb…. And there is astonishing warmth and fervour in his relationship with Nicola Hughes’ moving Bess.”
- by Caroline Ansdell