George Gershwin wanted the story of the crippled heroic Porgy and his love for the lovely but weak-willed Bess to combine the drama and romance of Carmen with the beauty of Meistersinger. And even in these days of the through-sung musical, it’s clear that this is an opera rather than musical.
Based on a book by Edwin DuBose, it’s set in its own world, the close-knit fishing community of Catfish Row, South Carolina, in the early 1930s, where you rarely see a white man. And it’s sung in a dialect so rich, you are grateful for the surtitles provided. So the work has a strong sense of time and place – and a specific community - which a production must conjure for the audience.
It’s a powerful story, bringing together two of society’s outsiders, the cripple and the ‘fallen woman’, against a backdrop of man battling against the elements – and against violence and drug addiction.
And then there’s the lush, sophisticated beauty of the score, drawing on known sources such as negro spirituals, and transmuting it all into an exotic soundscape to echo the singularity of the setting.
I’d never seen the show before and it was thrilling to hear in context those familiar songs that have deservedly become standards. Starting with “Summertime” and including “Bess, you is my woman now”, “I’ve got plenty of nuttin’” and “It ain’t necessarily so”, they’re studded through the recitative like jewels.
All this calls for a large cast of powerful actor/singers with acting skills to equal their operatic power. Just as Bombay Dreams offers opportunities to an all-Asian cast, this production of Porgy and Bess gives a cast of mainly black performers a chance to shine - and shine they do. In director Will Roberson’s lively staging, the stage is gloriously peopled with larger than life characters.
I cannot name the soloists, for they vary from night to night and we were only told who they were over the PA. But in a company where all the voices, both solo and in chorus, rise effortlessly to the occasion, it would be invidious to pick out one cast rather than another. Go and see Porgy and Bess if it comes your way – it’s a richly rewarding evening.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Northampton Derngate Theatre)