Intense Porgy and Bess (ENO, 17 October 2018)
Porgy: Eric Greene
Bess: Nicole Cabell
Crown: Nmon Ford
Sportin’ Life: Frederick Ballentine
Serena: Latonia Moore
Clara: Nadine Benjamin
Maria: Tichina Vaughn
Conductor: John Wilson
Director: James Robinson
Last night was the premiere of ENO’s first (!) production of Porgy and Bess. I don’t think I’ve seen such a rambunctious crowd at ENO before. The Balcony was full! And the ushers actually paraded up and down with “no mobiles and cameras” signs. Do they do it at other types of performances? I haven’t seen this at the opera before. I mean it was done on top of the very loud “turn off your mobiles now” sound effects that you normally hear. The crowd was significantly younger and more diverse (instead of the usual 2 black people, there were 10 last night). It’s always younger at 20th century/contemporary shows – and more diverse, though I noticed belcanto also gets its share of ethnic diversity. Baroque (this side of oratorios) is still niche-y.
The fact that it’s younger doesn’t mean it’s more enthusiastic or more knowledgeable (very fashionable and pretty woman in her 20s, on her mobile, of course: I hope the second part isn’t this long! – it was surprisingly long, I agree; about the length of your regular Baroque opera (with cuts)). But I did overhear intelligent (and enthusiastic) remarks from a couple of 30 somethings about some of the performances I agreed with and the possibility of freely shaping the sound inherent to jazz-influenced writing.
The length is justified, though, and Gershwin keeps it inventive, with a surprising number of memorable tunes (dude was good, both at absorbing/rehashing/writing in black vernacular and in carrying the tension over 3 hours). It’s got one of the grittiest libretti I can think of – in a good way. Very realistic and detailed in its observations regarding people’s interactions in a small, southern town, where the only whites are the police and their involvement is minimal1.
The production is “of its time”, so it won’t tell you anything the libretto doesn’t but the large cast, which is on stage most of the time, is well handled and acts well in return. The stage design – stilt houses in a fishing town (Catfish Row) – revolves occasionally to show the shore of the river at the back or reassembles to suggest the inside of a building (the church?) during the hurricane scene. The fight scenes are very effective and well acted.
The male singers are are all great and act superbly, especially the trio that circles Bess – Crown (her original boyfriend and top bad guy, sung by Nmon Ford), his drug dealin’ friend, Sportin’ Life (sung with just the right amount of oily smugness by Frederick Ballentine) and, best of all, Eric Greene as Porgy, the gentle-hearted town cripple who takes Bess in when no one wants to associate with her. Greene was simply wonderful all around, such a smooth tone and way with sound!
Of the women, Latonia Moore as Serena has a voice that I would like to hear again – really exqusite tone and great support. I’m not the biggest Cabell fan but she can hold a note like a superstar and has the opportunity to do so on several occasions. There’s always this feeling with her that she’s holding back, because the basic sound or her voice is very fine otherwise so on paper there’s little she can’t do. However, dramatically she’s very credible as the complex and troubled Bess.
All in all, a very intense evening, with impressive commitment from the cast and some really fine brass playing from the orchestra as you would like in this context.
- The plot in brief: Crown is a gamblin’, swearin’, fight pickin’, coke snortin’ bad guy, Bess is his equally hard partyin’ girlfriend and Sportin’ Life is their drug dealin’ (and wheelin’) friend. The town is ambivalent about them (namely, the church going women are). Crown stabs someone whilst drunk, everyone clears off, leaving Bess in a lurch. Porgy, the local kind hearted crippled beggar, takes her in and one thing leads to another – as it always does with Bess. Everything goes well for a while, she’s “mending her ways” and Porgy is happy. But then Crown returns from hiding from the law. As you can imagine, things go downhill from there. Like, really downhill. It ends on a strange note: Porgy decides to go looking for Bess in NYC (it’s sung in major key) but how well can this endeavour end? ↩