Porgy and Bess is an opera which, in the past, has predominantly been set in the 'Deep South', or more specifically South Carolina; highlighting African-American life in the 1920s. Cape Town Opera (CTO), on the other hand, have chosen a different approach and decided that strong parallels could be drawn between the original concept and South African urban life in the 1970s.
With a backdrop of Cape Town slums (designed by Michael Mitchell), problems are rife and are strongly present throughout the performance. Racism, poverty, hierarchy, gambling, gangsterism and religion are only a select few issues that the production addresses. However, on the flip side, the vibrancy and close community ties within their culture is always at the forefront of Christine Crouse's direction.
Running at 2 hours 45 minutes, I understand that this adaptation of Porgy and Bess had been considerably cut down from its initial form. I did feel that the storyline as a whole was lacking somewhat; it seemed to jump about without explanation at times and the production ended with a massive question mark. I found Act One to be a bit of a hard slog, if I'm honest, although Act Two did pick up considerably.
With music by George Gershwin, the orchestra in association with Welsh National Opera were sublime. Under Albert Horne's conduction, the orchestrations sounded wonderful and were probably the biggest success within the production. The lyrics by Ira Gershwin leave a lot to be desired, and seeing the lyrics in surtitles at the top of the proscenium arch made this more apparent. In an English sung opera, I firstly felt the surtitles may be an unwelcome distraction during the show but with a considerable amount of the diction unclear, I am glad we had them!
Within the company, there is a great deal of talent. Xolela Sixaba and Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, Porgy and Bess respectively, were very well matched vocally and were supported by a superb ensemble cast.
Overall, I don't feel the production necessarily worked in its entirety; however, it gave us the opportunity to witness a fantastic Opera company and the setting transition to South Africa was a successful one.
CTO's production of Porgy and Bess runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 9th June.
Photo Credit: BWW-Staff