Grange Park Opera’s Theatre in the Woods continues to evolve, now boasting a contiguous colonnade as well as separate ‘lavatorium rotundum’ that has been described as a “circular masterpiece of a lavatory”.
Inside, the relatively compact performance space encourages an intimate, multifaceted evocation of a close-knit community. Though on Catfish Row there seems only just enough space for the big choral numbers, well sung and slickly choreographed by Lizzi Gee (like the director, a veteran of GPO’s Oliver!).
Set designer Francis O’Connor’s ingeniously interlocking moveable modules hint at individual homes and lives. Costumes are more or less in period, David Plater’s lighting is expressionist.
Gershwin’s score is famously voluminous. The inevitable cuts – not quite identical to English National Opera’s 2018 version – turn it into a two-acter. Subplots vanish and we lose the opening piano blues, Porgy’s biggest aria and the opening of the storm scene. The second half also feels bittier. Still, the show remains a big play for the BBC Concert Orchestra under Stephen Barlow, tidy rather than inspired on opening night.
Despite this occasional sense of awkward compromise, Jean-Pierre van der Spuy’s production still triumphs. The solo singing is highly accomplished. The title roles taken by veterans of a Francesca Zambello production widely seen in the US. Musa Ngqungwana’s Porgy makes a big physical impact, credibly constrained by his own diffidence. The staging implies that he may nonetheless find his way to New York.
Though there are no weak links in the cast, the revelation of the night is the Francesca Chiejina’s Clara, vocally luminous with superb diction (there are no surtitles), a wonderfully sympathetic stage presence.