Let’s get the gushing out of the way first: the English National Opera‘s gorgeous revival of Porgy and Bess – yes it closed two weeks ago, I’ve been busy and I’m playing catch-up – is very nearly as good a production of the piece as I can imagine. There’s a handsome revolving set of skeletal tenements and piers by Michael Yeargan, superb costumes by Catherine Zuber, appropriately moody lighting by Donald Holder, and a knockout storm scene from video designer Luke Halls. It’s beautiful to look at, and under the baton of John Wilson the score – George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward‘s masterpiece – quite possibly sounds as good as it ever will. There are glorious performances in the title roles by Eric Greene and Nicole Cabell, Nadine Benjamin’s opening Summertime is as lovely an account of the song as you could imagine, and it’s a thrill to hear this music performed by the ENO’s orchestra and chorus. Following the London run, the production is heading to Amsterdam and New York; if you love the material, you’ll need to see it.
BUT… you knew this was coming, didn’t you? This, for me, was a superlative, thrilling musical experience. As a piece of theatrical storytelling, it wasn’t quite as successful. Part of that is simply down to the piece itself: first, that we’re no longer in the cultural moment in which it was written, and attitudes to race/racism/racial stereotyping have shifted significantly over the past eighty years, which inevitably means a libretto in which the central characters were (let’s put it kindly) regressive stereotypes even in 1935 – criminal/pugilist/philanderer/drug-peddlar/beggar/woman of low morals – is going to read a little uncomfortably in 2018, even when it’s treated as carefully as it is here under James Robinson’s direction. It’s arguably an issue, too, that of the seven major creative roles on this production, only one artist – Dianne McIntyre, the choreographer – isn’t white, which perhaps isn’t the most, let’s say, encompassing approach to a piece which has always been dogged by the perception that it examines black poverty through an inadvertent but nevertheless troubling lens of white/middle-class condescension.
A bigger problem – because the race/class issues are always going to be a problem in this particular piece, and the score is so superlatively wonderful that the piece has earned its place in the repertoire – is that while James Robinson has done a commendable job of navigating a course through the minefield that is the libretto, there’s an element of the process that gets in the way of the storytelling here: the production has an ideal set of leading players and a superb chorus, but too often it seems as if they’ve barely met. They’ll have been rehearsed separately and put together at the last minute, and there are more than a handful of scenes in which the chorus parts like the Red Sea as the principals enter from the rear of the (huge) stage and then stay back while the leading singers do their thing, as if the chorus and leads are separated by some kind of moat. The libretto carefully frames the plot as the story of the community – it’s the story of Catfish Row, not just the story of a woman with a past who falls in love but then is tempted away by drugs and the bright lights of New York (I know, I winced slightly as I typed it), but you can’t help coming away from the Coliseum having formed the impression that the principals and the chorus have taken out restraining orders against each other.
Better, then, to treat it as a musical feast with accompanying visuals. As music, as I said, this is an extraordinary experience. As theatre, it’s worth seeing – but the thrills come from the score, the conductor and the singers, rather than from the librettists and the production team.