Gershwin’s American folk opera returns to the London stage as part of Cape Town Opera’s UK tour. It’s a major company challenge, brought off here with a combination of great voices, fine acting, vital choreography and sheer heart.
Christine Crouse’s lively and emotionally searching production moves the setting from 1920s Catfish Row, Charleston, to Soweto in the 1970s. It proves a good match, the deprivation of an oppressed community finding apt expression in DuBose Heyward’s and Ira Gershwin’s libretto and brother George’s magnificent score. Albert Horne conducts the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, who punch it out from the pit with panache; exciting singing, too, from Cape Town Opera’s intensely powerful chorus. Though there’s a danger in turning too many pieces into production numbers, given the sheer physical commitment of the entire cast to Sibonakaliso Ndaba’s live-affirming choreography, one can hardly complain.
All of the principals on the first night were excellent and some of them unforgettably good. Nonhlanhla Yende’s high-flying soprano charts, to moving effect, Bess’s zigzagging moral journey. Victor Ryan Robertson slinks and slithers about the stage as a dangerously magnetic Sportin’ Life. Ntobeko Rwanqa’s grand stature and equally grand baritone command the stage as an arrogantly menacing Crown.
Xolela Sixaba’s performance as the disabled hero is a tremendous achievement, acted with dignity and heart-stopping humanity. His super-enriched bass-baritone is superb as an instrument and deployed with indelible eloquence. He’s the lynchpin of a production that fully justifies its composer’s hope that Porgy would take its place next to Carmen and Die Meistersinger.