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December 22   -   Tribuna musical

Gershwin´s “Porgy and Bess” in uneven South African production

George Gershwin´s sole opera, "Porgy and Bess", is a memorable achievement. Last week the Herald printed an ample interview of Esteban Colombet with Stage Director Christine Crouse as a useful introduction to the last installment of the Colón season, but it refers basically to the parallels she sees between her transposition to Soweto around 1970 and the original setting in Charleston, South Carolina, 1930s. She admits incongruities and cuts, but stresses the sociological resemblance. She has a point, but I certainly prefer the libretto as it was written by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin.

In both cases, there´s only one way to cast it in the main roles: with black singers. And that´s the way it was seen in the two other productions at Buenos Aires: a Teatro Astral by Everyman Opera Company conducted by Alexander Smallens (who had led the Boston world première in 1935), August 1955; and the Colón by the Virginia Opera Company, April 1992.

George Gershwin was a first-generation American whose parents were Jews from Odessa, Ukraine. Hardly, one would think, the right genes for an opera on a black drama in the USA´s South. True, Gershwin had shown his affinity with jazz roots with such splendid works as "Rhapsody in blue", "Concerto in F" and "An American in Paris", but those were very much the work of a New Yorker. In the opera he penetrates the spirit of the Deep South with uncanny empathy and enormous inspiration: there are of course wonderful songs, like "Summertime", but even more admirable in this folk opera (so-called by the author) are the call and response Spirituals and the complex concerted numbers in general.

Charleston is a city of rich history: the largest Atlantic port south of Philadelphia in Colonial times; from Fort Sumter, in an island in front of it, came the spark that ignited the Civil War; and close to the sea still stands Cabbage Row, real name of the Catfish Row of the opera. Eartquakes and cyclones have ravaged it but the citizens always recover.

As depicted by Heyward, the inhabitants of Catfish Row are deeply religious (numerous mentions of the Promised Land) and a closely knit community. They are fishermen, stevedores, or cotton workers. Most are good sorts, but two characters will ruin the life of Porgy (a crippled beggar) and Bess, sensual and drug addict: Crown, powerful and murderous; and Sporting Life, a pedlar of "happy dust" (cocaine). But the people that live there, the chorus, are just as essential: this is an opera where the inhabitants sing and dance again and again, so you need choristers with swing.

There have been essential recordings of this opera: the Decca album with the highlights sung by the original cast (Smallens); the first "complete" one (with cuts) with excellent singers conducted by Lehman Engel (Columbia); and two admirable really complete recordings in CD with great conductors (Maael and Rattle) and casts. So there´s no lack of recordings that do justice to this astonishing music. By the way, there were two Deep South operas before: the charming folkish "Treemonisha" by Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer (1915), and Delius´ "Koanga" (1904, Florida plantation); both interesting but no match for "Porgy".

Now to the Capetown Opera´s presentation. Frankly, last year a horrid "Macbeth" (Verdi transported to the Congo) by a South African company had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but fortunately this "Porgy..." even with its faults has its commendable aspects. Two singers were really good: Xolela Sixaba (Porgy) and Goitsemang Lehobye (Serena); and the chorus was always vital. Lukhanyo Moyake was a slimy, slithering Sporting Life, as he should be, but was far too free in his famous debunking Bible song, "It ain´t necessarily so". Nonhlanhla Yende acted well as Bess but vocally she was uneven, with highs that often were strident. Mandisinde Mbuyazwe as Crown looked the part but his timbre was arid. Miranda Tini was a rotund Maria though with a broken voice. And both Jake (Owen Metsileng) and Robbins (Mthunzi Mbombela) were good. There was charm in the street vendors.

Both the choir from Capetown (Marvin Kernelle) and the Colón Orchestra (Tim Murray) were satisfactory. Christine Crouse handled the action with rhythm and dramatic sense, though with too much noise and some licences, such as the death of Crown. Michael Mitchell´s stage designs were functional rather than attractive, though Kittiwah Island looked too much like Catfish Row; and his costumes were generally adequate. Interesting lighting by Kobus Rossouw.

Two final remarks: I was relieved that this "Soweto" wasn´t very different from Charleston; and of the several cuts, one was grievous: Porgy´s "Buzzard Song". Warts and all, this "Porgy" tips on the positive side of the balance and after 24 years it was time for its revival.

For Buenos Aires Herald


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