A TALE OF lust and evil, worthiness and bias in the face of a racist society, teeming with some of the western world’s best known covers, Porgy and Bess seems to cock a snoot at everything that serious opera traditionally was about. Conceived and written by two Jewish brothers – George and Ira Gershwin – in the 1930s, it offers a heady mix of African American spiritual energy, Jewish blues and jazzy notes, yet it tells a tale of bloody woe and dramatic complexity that can stand its own alongside La Traviata or Lucia di Lammermoor. Staged in 2020, in an age of black wokeness, this work shimmers with aliveness and relevance. It’s a production that is absolutely everything.
Filmed with the kind of sensitivity and wisdom that makes you miss the energy of the live performance but relish the insights and close ups that the cameras can offer, every still of this work is astonishing. There are times when the work of Italian Renaissance painter Giotto is evoked where gestures and gazes direct the focus. There are moments of communal mourning or prayer coloured by the rustic costumes of the characters that make you feel as though you are looking at painting by the ilk of Flemish painter Breughel. And with a skeletal set that turns and becomes a village and an island, a world and a universe, drawn lines and architecturally constructed ones conflate in a visual crescendo, playing with your eye, your heart and your soul, particularly in the storm at the piece’s denouement.
This is the tale of Bess (Angel Blue) and her addictions – men, the bottle, the ‘happy dust’ – and Porgy (Eric Owens), a disabled man dear to the community, who is not a stranger to the brunt of mockery and patronisation because he is not able-bodied. It’s a tale set in the deep south of America, in a village called Catfish, where racist and miens values pepper and soil the community in its self-awareness. It’s a universal story of forgiveness and love, disappointment and betrayal and with the impeccably fine support of South African-born soprano Golda Schultz as ‘Clara’, who is the instrument for the well known cover Summertime, as well as baddies by way of the murderous Crown (Alfred Walker) and the serpentine Sportin’ Life (Frederick Ballentine), and is one that ripples with social texture.
But it’s not only the performances of the central characters, the set and lighting that cohere to embrace perfection: the work is supported by a completely brilliant chorus which is never still or unfocused and collectively offers a sense of communal texture that will sweep you off your seat.
Having said that, the tale is told in clean and bold narrative lines. Those well trodden covers which have appeared in the repertoire of anyone who can hold a tune, from Janice Joplin to Ella Fitzgerald, slide into the narrative logic of this work with brilliance. You don’t find yourself waiting for them, but when they come, your tears accompany them. With wily and meaningful choreography that offers a plaintiff voice of religious appeal, complementing the singing voices, the work, engaging all the issues of being black in a racist society, turns on its own pivot, offering you a thoughtful and fulsome portrayal of bias and damage, hope and love, that never bleeds into the maudlin and will keep you focused and in awe for its 3 hour, 22 minute duration.
Niftily, but perhaps fortuitously, fitting into black history month and in tandem with local musical productions of the ilk of Paradise Blue, Porgy and Bessy is in the upper realms of what opera is all about. It feels uncomfortable to think that this sheer masterpiece could have been staged at this time for commercial reasons: Not a stitch of compromise or mediocrity characterises this completely magnificent work. Whatever you do, even if you don’t see another show this decade, see this one.
- Porgy and Bess is composed by George Gershwin with libretto by Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Heyward, based on the novel by DuBose Heyward, and directed by James Robinson for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. It features a cast headed by Frederick Ballentine, Angel Blue, Denyce Graves, Latonia Moore, Eric Owens, Golda Schultz, Donovan Singletary and Alfred Walker. Produced by David Frost and presented by the Met Live, it features creative input by Michael Yeargan (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting), Luke Halls (projection), Camille A Brown (choreography), David Leong (fight choreography) and David Robertson (conductor). Release date in South Africa, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: February 22, 2020, for a limited season.