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Commitment-phobe:  Eric Greene as Porgy and Nicole Cabell as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” (©Tristram Kenton/ENO)

George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has unleashed arguments about colour and power since its inaugural performance in 1935 — and spent a good few of those years on the naughty step of progressive wisdom. The prosecution case is that Gershwin’s folkloric treatment of black Americans in the early 1900s is a heap of stereotypes: “The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western world,” tutted one prominent African-American scholar on encountering it. Unease about Gershwin’s show-boating of a hardscrabble black American community’s problems led the work to fall out of favour with much of the civil rights movement.

Forward to 2018, when the theatre is both galvanised and confused by who should play what role and gender- and race-blind castings are moving from exception to norm: the questions it raises about how to present the work now feel timely. “White folk lock me up, white folk let me out,” announces one of the incidental victims of random punishment. In DuBose Heyward’s libretto (based on  his 1925 novel) the injustices of the plot are portrayed as a clear successor to slavery. Although the characters can be accused of looking like a white man’s understanding of black America, Heyward, a native of Charleston, grew up close to the precarious world he evokes.

The Gershwin estate has always insisted that the opera be performed by a black cast and in its entirety (totalling three hours). For a production on this scale, it’s sourcing the cast widely — here from (inter alia) the US, Britain and South Africa. 

It also means that a work which sits somewhere between musical theatre and opera has the length of the latter but feels more like a magic box of great songs, underpinned by limited dramatic action. It’s the American equivalent of Brecht’s Happy End: great tunes, shame about the action. Actually, Porgy’s roots in the drama of misaligned lovers and fateful mischance have the essence of a good yarn, but the gaps in characterisation and plot do need a big dose of brio to cover over the tendency for the story to gallop from one misfortune to the next.

English National Opera has gambled on offsetting the losses of some productions with musical theatre offerings tempting enough to fill the cavernous interior of London’s second opera house. It’s an idea rich in potential — and jeopardy. Fortunately, this sprightly version (a co-production with the New York Met and Dutch National Opera) has the dynamism and commitment to rise above the story’s shortcomings. It’s usually a bad sign for a production if reviewers start talking about the set rather than the cast, but Michael Yeargan’s shanty town, revolving sets and a restrained use of computer-generated  imagery bring us the Mississipi backdrop to Catfish Row. The work’s choral might (its great strength, beside the hits)  gives us a sense of a community by turns hopeful and  despairing as it contends with poverty, disaster and, just occasionally, something going right.
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November 28th, 2018
5:11 PM
"Mississippi backdrop to Catfish Row"? No, it's Charleston, South Carolina.

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