Porgy and Bess [Cape Town Opera]

Porgy and Bess [libretto by Ira Gershwin after the novel by DuBose & Dorothy Heyward]

Porgy – Xolela Sixaba
Bess – Lisa Daltirus
Crown – Ntobeko Rwanqa
Serena – Arline Jaftha
Clara – Pretty Yende
Maria – Miranda Tini
Jake – Aubrey Lodewyk
Sportin’ Life – Victor Ryan Robertson
Mingo – Mthunzi Mbombela
Robbins – Mlamli Lalapantsi
Peter – Marvin Kernelle
Lily – Amanda Makhubalo
Strawberry woman – Zukiswa Tsewu
Jim – Lindile Kula Sr
Undertaker – Nkosana Sitimela
Nelson – Thamsanqa Lamani
Crab man – Vuyisile Hlaka
Mr Archdale / Coroner – Peter Krummeck
Detective – Anton Luitingh
Policemen – Jurg Slabbert & Neil Roux

Cape Town Opera – Voice of the Nation Ensemble

David Charles Abell

Christine Crouse – Director
Michael Mitchell – Designer
Steve Allsop – Lighting
Sibonakaliso Ndaba – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 26 October, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Having read one or two articles about this production of “Porgy and Bess” – described on the Southbank Centre’s website as a “semi-staged concert version” – with references to cuts and updating, to name but two potential areas of contention – I was uncertain as to what to expect. In the event, whilst there were indeed some textual issues, this was a vibrant, lively and moving presentation of George Gershwin’s opera.

The backbone of the production was the chorus from Cape Town Opera, whose visible enthusiasm was a joy to behold. Everyone seemed to be putting heart and soul into their singing – from memory – and, collectively, they made a big, strong sound which belayed their comparatively modest number – about 40. The cast – those with principal and ‘smaller’ parts – were largely drawn from its ranks and the high quality of performances is a testimony to the standard of the company as a whole.

There was a wonderful sense of engagement with the both drama and music, and despite the relatively small performing area for the leads – the chorus was at the back of the platform – the story really came alive. Judicious movement – excellent choreography – gesture, entrances, exits and so forth had been carefully planned and extremely effective.

In many ways it is invidious to single out individuals, for this was very much a company show, but some performances are worthy of particular note.

The first soloist to be heard was Pretty Yende who delivered ‘Summertime’ most beautifully; admirers of the full version of the score will have regretted the absence of the scene-setting ‘Jasbo Brown’ piano blues which should precede it. Yende is off to La Scala and for study with Mirella Freni. I am sure will be hearing a lot more of her.

I wasn’t surprised to read that Rodolfo (“La bohème”) is one of Victor Ryan Robertson’s roles, for he commands a splendid, ringing tenor which was deployed to great effect in his portrayal of the Sportin’ Life. One heard many more of the notes than is often the case with this character.

Ntobeko Rwanqa presented a powerful Crown (he and Xolela Sixaba alternate their parts during this tour) with the right bass quality, but also fielding some oft-omitted high notes. The scene between him and Bess on Kittiwah Island positively oozed with danger and sexual tension.

As Crown’s – and later, Porgy’s – lady, Lisa Daltirus was thoroughly convincing in her alternating moods between ambivalence and commitment, between being lascivious with anyone in trousers and, ultimately, a devoted partner to Porgy until lured away by Sportin’ Life’s tempting description of New York.

Xolela Sixaba was a sympathetic central character, fiercely protective of his Bess and clearly someone who the inhabitants of Catfish Row looked out for. The key duets – ‘Bess you is my woman now’ and ‘I loves you, Porgy’ were expressive and poignant.

In a somewhat defensive “conductor’s notes”, David Charles Abell attempted to justify the cuts which were going to be made; he makes much of having studied the original orchestral parts but then says “at the time of writing. I can’t even say precisely what cuts we will take”. Suffice it to say there were many – especially in Act Three – and those who know the complete opera will have missed the omitted sections – verses from numbers, linking passages, and others. But what may have been a disappointment from a musicological point-of-view was, I think, more than made up for by the sheer panache of the company. Certainly the drama of the story, and the vividly drawn characters came across with conviction.

As for Abell’s conducting, he undeniably kept the show on the road. Some fussy rubato and holdings-back may be forgiven; occasionally there were some passages which were rather passed by – those aching string phrases at the end of the first scene could have been made more of, for instance – and occasionally a want of sheer panache and clout. The orchestra – drawn largely, I gather, from Welsh National Opera – for the most part played well, though the players – and Abell – could have sounded less inhibited at times.

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