This is the first time English National Opera has done Porgy and Bess, It’s a tricky show to pull off: written by two white Jewish men about a black community in South Carolina, with a phenomenal, difficult score slipping between jazz, blues, gospel, folk and classical styles; a baggy libretto. But the superb cast nails it.
Individual moments of James Robinson’s production work better than its entirety – like Sporting Life’s (Frederick Ballentine) seedily charismatic rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So – but it’s Dianne McIntyre’s outstanding choreography that really shines.
John Wilson, making his ENO debut, takes the piece at a lingering pace. It’s languid like a hot summer day, and sometimes that’s to its advantage. Sometimes it feeds the atmosphere and environment and the music perfectly. At other times it’s just too slow.
Although Michael Yeargan’s set, a wooden structure on two levels, looks structurally sound, and even quite pretty when Donald Holder’s lighting dims to gauzy, sun-set levels, silhouetting the timber frame, the whole thing is a bit inert.
But that cast! After the buzz and bustle of strings and xylophone in Gershwin’s overture there’s that note, the first note of Summertime, one of the all-time great opening numbers.
Nadine Benjamin nails it. Then we don’t see much of her character Clara until halfway through Act II. That’s the thing about this opera: it’s made by its ensemble. There are a lot of minor characters with a lot of solo work and, without exception, they’re fantastic.
Not just Benjamin, but Latonia Moore and Tichina Vaughn too as Serena and Maria, two puritanical matriarchs, Ronald Samm with a song about honey and Nozuko Teto with one about strawberries.
Eric Greene’s Porgy is great, so is Nicole Cabell’s Bess – though she doesn’t quite cut through above the orchestra, her consonants and clarity get lost – but this isn’t really a showcase for them, it’s a team effort, and what a team.