DAVID MELLOR OPERA OF THE WEEK
London Coliseum Until Nov 17
George Gershwin went to an early grave believing his biggest project, Porgy And Bess, to be a failure. So successful is this fine new production that I kept thinking: ‘If only he could have seen this.’
In a generous tribute, his great rival Irving Berlin said: ‘We were just songwriters; George was always a composer.’ The truth of this comment is obvious in every bar, because, thanks to some exceptional playing by English National Opera’s much put-upon orchestra, and the idiomatic, impassioned conducting of John Wilson, it’s Gershwin’s vividly colourful orchestrations that constantly tickle the ear.
Gershwin had to have his first big hit, Rhapsody In Blue, orchestrated for him. A dozen years later he could do the job himself, thanks to incessant study, including lessons from that master orchestrator Maurice Ravel. When Ravel asked Gershwin what he earned and Gershwin told him, Ravel said he’d better take a few lessons from him!
The Gershwin estate has always insisted on black singers for Porgy And Bess, except for the two white policemen, who, interestingly, and no doubt deliberately, never sing a note.
The power of the chorus is at times overwhelming. How well Gershwin studied AfricanAmerican religious services, and how brilliantly their intense atmosphere is reproduced here.
Inevitably, one or two of the main roles are a bit underplayed. While Eric Greene is commanding both physically and vocally as Porgy, Nicole Cabell’s Bess is underpowered. 20 Similarly, Frederick Ballentine’s Sporting Life lacks both charisma and a comic touch, especially in It Ain’t Necessarily So, but Nmon Ford is an outstanding Crown. It’s the support that’s so exceptional, led by Latonia Moore’s unmissable Serena. Ronald Samm as Peter the Honeyman, Nozuko Teto as the Strawberry Woman, and Chaz’men Williams-Ali as the Crab Man contribute cameos of the utmost distinction.
James Robinson’s slum may be a bit too posh, and the costumes too smart, but here is a real opera director knocking everything into shape with true professionalism. And, doubtless thanks to the involvement of the Met as co-producers, ENO have, for them, that great rarity – a bankable, revivable show that’s apparently 90 per cent sold out.