In its first ever production of George and Ira Gershwin's 1935 opera, English National Opera indicates with an archive photograph of the real-life Catfish Row tenement in which the opera is set that cramped living raises tensions, then as now. Beguiled by the string of hit songs in this much-loved piece – 'It Ain't Necessarily So', 'I Got Plenty of Nuttin' ', and 'Summertime' itself – it is easy to forget that under the surface of this committed opera runs drug addiction, gambling, disease and disability, and poverty so severe that a man will risk his life to support his family.
Lame in one leg, Porgy gets by begging on the street. Bess is the striking girlfriend of violent chancer Crown, who falls for Porgy's more selfless devotion when Crown, having killed a man, flees. It is his unexpected return that upsets this happy new arrangement, but Porgy is not going to give up his new love easily, however many years it takes.
Eric Greene is magnificent as Porgy, saviour of Bess (Nicole Cabell). Photo: Tristram Kenton
This simple story is played out in the heart of the cotton-picking community where every triumph or disaster is shared by a largely good-hearted crowd. And a mighty crowd it is – a specially formed and augmented chorus of English National Opera crammed on to the stage of the Coliseum with a solidity that at times is at odds with the nimble music. American director James Robinson, making his ENO debut, certainly resists the temptation to put on a musical, but the brief bursts of unfettered dance make you secretly long for a bit more movement.
Gershwin, the master of jazz, blues, ragtime and spirituals, was ambitious: he wanted Porgy and Bess to be a cross between Bizet's Carmen and Wagner's Die Meistersinger. He certainly gets his Carmen in 2005 Cardff Singer of the World winner Nicole Cabell as a scarlet-clad Bess, with her sultry allure. And in Eric Greene, ENO has an attractive Porgy of great dignity, whose magnificent voice vibrates with passion and warmth. His is a showstopping performance.
Fast-rising star Nadine Benjamin, lovely as the Countess in English Touring Opera's The Marriage of Figaro and excellent this summer for Opera Holland Park in Mascagni’s Isabeau makes an impressive ENO debut as Clara, opening the show with Summertime. By the time of that number's reprise, its innocence has fallen away, as she clearly conveys.
Nmon Ford as Crown comes out of hiding to reclaim Bess (Nicole Cabell). Photo: Tristram Kenton
Nmon Ford is satisfyingly repellent as vicious Crown, Latonia Moore as Serena laments his slaying of her husband, and Donovan Singletary is striking as Clara's fisherman husband Jake. The threatening seas into which Jake launches his fishing boat call to mind in music not Bizet or Wagner but Benjamin Britten. He heard Porgy and Bess in New York before writing Peter Grimes, with its not dissimilar if very English picture of a tight community rocked by wrongdoing.
Listen out too for the positively Gilbert and Sullivan absurdity of a 'lawyer' arranging the divorce of Bess and Crown, who were never married....
Conducting the Orchestra of English National Opera and this vast chorus is John Wilson, whose many musicals-based Proms concerts make him the perfect fit for this quicksilver score. He is rewarded with terrific playing from players who you suspect may be enjoying letting their hair down musically, and the slightly stolid pace is sure to tighten over the many performances ahead.
The mighty vocal ensemble will be back at the Coliseum with ENO for Britten's War Requiem in November. Catch both operas for complementary pictures of the best and worst of what humankind is capable of.
'Porgy and Bess' is sung in English with English surtitles. Click here for the entire ENO season 2018/19
|What||Porgy and Bess review , English National Opera|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
11 Oct 18 – 17 Nov 18, Times vary
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|