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In Review > International

Porgy and Bess

LONDON
English National Opera
10/14/18

In Review ENO Porgy hdl 119
Nmon Ford, Nicole Cabell and Eric Greene in ENO’s new Porgy
© Tristram Kenton

GEORGE GERSHWIN'S masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, has been infrequently staged in the United Kingdom, in part due to the historic difficulty in locating an all-black cast of sufficient size and quality. But that is no longer a problem, if one is to judge by the talents of the substantial company and first-rate principals engaged by English National Opera for its new production (seen Oct. 14), directed by James Robinson, designed by Michael Yeargan and choreographed by veteran Dianne McIntyre.

Porgy and Bess, first heard in Boston during a pre-Broadway tryout in 1935, remains an extraordinary achievement. Although Gershwin had long experience in the related genre of musical theater, his only opera before Porgy and Bess was the small-scale Blue Monday, launched as part of George White’s Scandals of 1922. Gershwin’s ability to acquire the comprehensive technical skills needed to create a full-length work of such exceptional assurance can only be put down to genius, supported by considerable study: Porgy and Bess demonstrates an impressive range of musical influences, from the enriching input of various genres of Afro–American music to the harmonic impact of such composers as Puccini, Ravel and even Berg. The original Broadway run of Porgy and Bess, presented by the Theatre Guild, was not a commercial success, with only 124 performances before it closed, in January 1936. It was not until after Gershwin’s death, in 1937, that the singular magnificence of Porgy began to be appreciated; the opera’s first Broadway revival, in 1942, ran more than twice as long as the original production. 

Robinson’s staging, a coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera and Dutch National Opera, moved with assurance from scene to scene in Yeargan’s adaptable unit set, which took us from a skeletal but credible Catfish Row to a pier on Kittiwah Island and back. In this space, the specially recruited forty-member ensemble (contracted for not only the Dutch National Opera Porgy but for Daniel Kramer’s new ENO staging of Britten’s War Requiem in November 2018) demonstrated a level of vocal magnificence—individually and collectively—that was utterly thrilling. 

As Clara, Nadine Benjamin started the show on a high with her immaculately articulated “Summertime.” Ronald Samm’s dignified Peter, Tichina Vaughn’s fiery Maria and Latonia Moore’s moving Serena helped fix in the audience’s collective mind the most notable members of the local community, to which one could add such proficient visiting vocalists as Nozuko Teto’s Strawberry Woman and Chaz’men Williams-Ali’s Crab Man. 

Baritone Nmon Ford’s thrillingly sung, boldly acted Crown was a mesmerizing portrait of overweening toxic masculinity. Frederick Ballentine was a vital presence as Sportin’ Life, his pliable tenor taking on every sharp-angled challenge that came its way. Nicole Cabell’s complex, limpidly voiced Bess was partnered by Eric Greene’s commanding Porgy, a complete interpretation that reached a level of physical engagement that proved as inspiring as it was profound. 

ENO’s Orchestra had a wonderful evening, led by John Wilson, a versatile conductor who has achieved fame with his own orchestra’s performances of numerous scores from Broadway and Hollywood, as well as a range of twentieth-century music in the concert hall and opera house. Wilson was in his element in Gershwin’s lavish score, whose merits he conveyed in a shining, spacious reading. —George Hall



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