Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Cape Town Opera

The Coliseum, London, 16 July 2012 4 stars

Porgy and BessCape Town Opera is showing Porgy and Bess in triple cast at the London Coliseum. Their cast lists for their performances state that ‘Cast subject to change without prior notice’. Having not seen or heard any of Cape Town Opera’s singers prior to the performance which I am reporting on, I hope that the cast list for their 12th July matinee was accurate.

The most striking feature of this production is its realism. It feels absolutely real, it does not feel like a performance in the theatre. With the all-black CTO singers on stage I felt like a tourist watching the comings and goings in a country which I had not visited before.

The Gershwin estate requests that the opera – with libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, with music by Ira’s brother George Gershwin – should be performed by black singers. Cape Town Opera’s production goes one further: they shift the setting both in time and in space.

Christine Crouse, artistic director of Cape Town Opera and director of their Porgy and Bess production, moves the action from the early twenty-century to the 1970s, from Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina to Soweto, South Africa. She draws parallels between life in the South African township and Catfish Row, the make belief Charleston community living in a derelict building. For Crouse, both libretto and music are perfect fit for South African life which she portrays with insight and sensitivity.

Cape Town Opera singers are drawn from South Africa – indeed, some of them come from Soweto – and they live rather then perform their parts on the stage. The chorus is small (compared to other opera companies elsewhere in the world) but their energy is overwhelming. They set their energy level at the opening scene and maintained it throughout. Gershwin’s rhythms seem to be natural to solo singers as well as chorus members. They move, jump and dance as if such movements were part of their lives. Indeed, they are and the choreography of Sibonakaliso Ndaba builds on these natural elements exquisitely.

Michael Mitchell’s set is simple and constant throughout the whole opera. We see some indication of a house with one floor but the building is not dominant. There is great deal of space – certainly on the large stage of the London Coliseum, but probably in most other theatres of the CTO’s tour – and it is filled in with great amount of movement and dance. In spite of the static setting, motion is permanent on stage.

Otto Maidi as Porgy is deeply moving dramatically and also astonishing musically. His strong voice, musicality and stage presence could grace any opera house in great many operas. According to his biography in the programme notes he has appeared in various US and European houses in various roles, although South Africa is the country where he mostly performs. I cannot get my head round how Maidi managed to stay on his knees during the whole of Christine Crouse’s Porgy production, sometimes even accomplishing almost virtuoso acrobatics on his knees. Furthermore, I do not understand the rationale behind this concept. Yes, according to the libretto, Porgy is a cripple but he moves around in a goat cart. To my mind, Crouse’s concept is not only unkind to her Porgy singers but it is also unrealistic. It makes the deeply moving and optimistic ending of the opera – with Porgy leaving for New York to find Bess – comic. Surely Porgy would not crawl on his knees, not even on the wooden board on wheels as seen in this production, from Charleston, South Carolina to New York.

Sibongile Mngoma (Bess) is a highly impressive singer with a strong voice. To my understanding of the role, she did not capture Bess dramatically. She seemed to move like a bit of a prostitute as the bad time Bess – yet the problem there is Bess’s liking the ‘happy dust’ drug – and I was unconvinced about Bess’s love for Porgy in Mngoma’s portrayal. This approach, of course, may be due to directorial instructions. 

Arline Japhta (Serena) was astonishing from every point of view. Her vocal control in the final crescendo in her lament for husband Robbins was breath-taking.     

Full credit is due to all other principal singers: Mandisinde Mbuyazwe (Crown), Nozuko Teto (Clara) and Tshepo Moagi (Sporting Life) but smaller roles too were performed with high standard. Both the Strawberry Song and the Crab Song were delivered with relish by Siphamandla Yakupa and Vuyisile Hlaka with relish. However, the show stopper was Gloria Bosman as Maria. Of course, her part gives opportunities for humorous entertaining and she took the challenge head on.

It was a strange sight to see an all black opera company accompanied by an all white orchestra (Welsh National Opera orchestra) and conducted by a white conductor (Albert Horne). However, the white musicians seemed to have understood the genre and gave full support. Neither the Dr Jesus choral number nor the final ‘Oh, Lawd, I’m on my way’ chorus could have been bettered. They were heartfelt, powerful and real; the people of Soweto spoke.

By Agnes Kory



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