Porgy and Bess

Wales Millennium Centre

It may seem a move rich in thematic links and possibilities, almost overdone in connective reasoning, but, astonishingly, Cape Town Opera’s emphatic production of the Gershwins’ magnificent folk opera does not sit comfortably in Soweto. There is a narrative disconnect between the new setting of the South African township and the fishing village of the original. The set, although brilliantly realised and completely immersive, was more reminiscent of Cuba than the tin-hatted shacks of Apartheid’s shanty towns, and thus the striking moments when African rhythms played against the emergence of Gershwin’s score it was difficult not to think Latino rather than Zulu or Tsongan. Some of the dancing also seemed more Caribbean, the hip-movements of Cuban dance being more than exploited by some members of the cast, adding further to the confusion that dominated this resetting. It did not help that the excellently serpentine Ryan Robertson as Sportin’ Life dressed very much like a Cuban con-man, in brown leather jacket, fedora and pink paisley tie. He was also the only member of the cast to sound out of place in his vocal style: not only was it more music hall than opera, his accent was most certainly American. It seemed at all times that the transposition of this masterpiece of twentieth century theatre from one story of racist oppression to another was only half-way considered and kept butting heads with the libretto, the design, and the performances of the cast.

Porgy and Bess By George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward Cape Town Opera with the WNO Orchestra Wales Millennium Centre Starring: Xolela Sixaba, Sibongile Mngoma Directed by Christine Crouse
Porgy and Bess,
By George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward,
Cape Town Opera with the WNO Orchestra,
Wales Millennium Centre,
Starring: Xolela Sixaba, Sibongile Mngoma,
Directed by Christine Crouse

That said such was the power and euphoric accomplishments of the performers that highlighting such muddle borders on the cantankerous. And so let’s move on.

Ryan Robertson, despite his confusing attire, vocal technique and accent, gave a performance that was a highlight amongst an array of fabulous turns. Sibongile Mngoma’s Bess was sexy, dynamic and limitlessly tragic as she fails to escape the destructive cycle her life is in, unable to utilise the unquestioning love of the cripple Porgy, a slave to abusive men and their chemical enticements.

Xolela Sixaba’s Porgy is perhaps the finest presence anyone will see on a Welsh stage this year. The power of his voice, unrestricted it seems by a performance given on his knees, gave shuddering hints at what Paul Robeson must have been like in the role to watch as well as listen to. Sixaba filled the songs with a tragic resonance, a mortal naivety in an understanding of his own lot as a crippled black man in a cruelly unjust white man’s world. For all of Porgy’s hope, for all of his joy, the undercurrent of bellowed, shimmering sadness in his every intonation ensures us that every triumph is going to be relative. Where the oppression by the white man, and the exploitations of the corrupt amongst his own people, will always prevail is in the all-important outer world. Porgy is determined to overcome this tragedy of circumstance by putting all of his energies into an inner world, where his love for Bess and her love for him create a sublime plane of ignorance. But this is the greatest naivety of all and from the off blinds Porgy to the tragic truth of Bess herself: that she is incapable of letting go of the cruel outer-world, and it is incapable of letting go of her. It is the fundamental understanding of this that turns the main performances from ones of technical proficiency from actors with substantial gifts to performances of profound ingenuity and power. The press pack accompanying the tour professes that due to the thematic tensions between South Africa and Porgy and Bess that the Cape Town Opera are able to give something true of themselves and run it through the characters. For sure the line is a marketing opportunity of rare purity of spirit, but it is not only a marketing opportunity. If the background of the actors has played a part in the realisation of their characters then surely this must be a career high for most of them. It is a truly admirable way to peak.

Mention must also go to the fabulous work coming from the pit. The WNO orchestra, under the baton of Tim Murray, gave a vibrant and accomplished interpretation of the score. It would have been interesting to have heard a grittier take to match the wonderful set design, something a little closer to Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ version from 1958, but overall the musicians maintained the energy and, most importantly for this Opera, the considerable empathy needed to pull it off. The musicians themselves at points were as significant as the actors on stage, not propping the story and the talents of the vocalists with their playing, but colouring the gallery wall, changing the smell carried on the air. The songs that are now staples of the American songbook, such as ‘Summertime’, ‘It ‘aint Necessarily So’ and ‘I got Plenty o’ Nuttin’’ were handled with delicate bravado and sensitivity in equal measure, and the darkly playful passages were likewise well-judged. The musical highlight however was a stark and stirring rendition of the requiem, ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’, sung with the powerful fullness of a gospel procession, swelling as the musical hook stumbled and crumbled like a cliff face into the sea.

This production, apart from its awkwardness in continental transition, is a strident triumph directed with gusto and performed with passion, wit, and the energy of a full, large cast, with the bit firmly between their teeth.