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Porgy and Bess

by on 12 October 2018

Real Deep South Heat

Porgy and Bess

by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 17th November

Review by Suzanne Frost

Hotly anticipated, Porgy and Bess is a great choice for programming not just because the work hasn’t been seen in London since the eighties and has never been staged at ENO before, but also because it fits so urgently into their overarching season theme – patriarchal structures.

P&G1 (Tristram Kenton)

Gershwin famously saw his American Opera somewhere between Meistersinger and Carmen (although I got some serious Sondheim shivers in the overture), but Bess, the unmarried, outcast addict, endlessly passed on from one man to the next, is the Anti-Carmen. A vulnerable woman with no agenda of her own, only defined by the man who is housing her at any given moment and suffering under the societal structures that only assign worth to married women and mothers, Bess is a victim of patriarchy if there ever was one. As human rights activist Malcom X famously said, the most disrespected, unprotected, neglected person in America is the black woman, and Bess may well be opera’s only intersectional heroine.

Embargo on images until 7.30pm 11-10-18

Just like Carmen, the storyline of Porgy and Bess is pure verismo, set amongst the poor hardworking downtrodden community of Catfish Row in South Carolina. Their close-knit lives are well presented through the mobile set designed by double Tony-Award winner Michael Yeargan, always bustling with various activities across two levels of a typical southern colonial house. Under the subtle direction of James Robinson it is interesting how the centre stage is almost at all times taken up by the men of the community while the women are pushed to the margins of the stage or busy on the upper levels with endless household chores and the care of numerous children. The evenings are “man time” as they take their apparently God-given right to relax, drink, gamble, waste time and lounge about after a day of work, while the labour never end for the women. The male privilege is most striking when you notice a teenage boy already lazing away with the men while a small girl upstairs is pushing a broom. The patriarchal structures are internalised by everyone, not least of all by the women who shame and bully Bess, making her entrance in a classic Carmen red dress to mark her as a “slag”, for not conforming to the acceptable stereotype of wife and mother. “Gawd-fearin’” women can be the worst!

Embargo on images until 7.30pm 11-10-18

It is quite obvious how Bess, whose beauty might be her curse, ends up in the company of men, as she is persistently shunned and excluded from the sisterhood. Immensely vulnerable and victim of her drug addiction, Bess needs shelter and protection and the only way to find those is via men. Of course those men rarely have her best interest at heart. The violent Crown is abusive, the drug dealer Sporting Life seeks ways to exploit her addiction. Only Porgy, the warm hearted cripple with a happy soul sees any good in her. Though still unmarried, a prim floral dress and someone else’s baby to care for turn Bess into an almost acceptable woman in the eyes of the clan. Yet, preconceptions remain under the surface at all times. Bess is a “bad woman”. The drug dealer and the murderer are perfectly acceptable members of the community.

With a storyline as eternal as this one, I was a little bit disappointed with the perfectly traditional mise en scene. While many may sigh in relief, I do generally love ENO’s boldness with direction and Porgy and Bess would work brilliantly in a more contemporary setting. But perfectly neat southern 1920s is what we get. Also, for anyone familiar with that old tune Summertime – and who isn’t – the original version sound surprisingly unjazzy. The orchestra, under jazz expert James Wilson, sounds mighty fine, but tamer than I expected and so, at over three hours running time and a never-ending first act, it did test my patience. The score does of course include some evergreens – and Frederic Ballentine as Sporting Life gets the crowds swinging, letting loose with It Ain’t Necessarily So – but rather more impressive are the gospel numbers, most of all the first act funeral, where that big luxurious specially enlarged ensemble of forty raises to a glorious chorus, building up real Deep South heat. Tichina Vaughn made a showstopper of her scenes as a sassy Maria throwing shade at Sporting Life while dissecting a shark. Much audience love was directed at Eric Greene for his debut as a warm and big hearted Porgy with a goofy smile and great physicality. His I Got Plenty of Nuttin was light-hearted and humorous, with more than a whiff of Fiddler on the Roof “If I was a rich man” charm. Soprano Nicole Cabell was less warmly received for her portrayal of Bess which is curious. There is a tendency with audiences these days to judge the characters rather than the performers during their curtain call, with lots of booing for the white police men, who are of course unlikeable but perfectly performed as such by singers who don’t deserve this kind of judgement. Bess is a less likeable figure than Porgy, she is beautiful and flawed, underwritten as a character by the – what else – male librettists, lacks courage and personal agenda, acts merely as a prop for most of the men in the story and was as such perfectly portrayed by the gorgeous Nicole Cabell. The fact that she pales in comparison to her male counterpart is in a way patriarchal structures personified. As long as only men write the stories and give space to male characters, this is how women will be painted on stage. Unfortunately the only piece of new writing this season, the Jack the Ripper opera in March next year, is also by a man.

Suzanne Frost
October 2018

Photography by Tristram Kenton

  1. celiabard permalink

    The set, costumes and groupings look wonderful.

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