Good show

Rating: 5

Porgy and Bess

by Margaret Beaumond 

The most successful opera to have come out of the us during the 20th century has made its debut on the Coliseum’s stage in a huge production in partnership with dutch national opera and new York’s metropolitan opera. it’s a difficult piece to put on – set in ‘Catfish row’, a tenement neighbourhood of Charleston, south Carolina, Gershwin stipulated that the cast, including the chorus, should be entirely african american, so singers have been brought together from all over the world for these performances. it’s also a piece that has to be very carefully done – with all its patois and portrayal of poverty, drugs and all aspects of life, it sails pretty close to the wind, and makes somewhat uncomfortable watching for right-on modern audiences. it’s an opera that could never be written in the 21st century. however, this production is masterful. The intricate sets cleverly double the size of the stage, with space for the whole cast to move about. it may be a little crowded, but that’s part of the point. it’s clear as well that each of the characters in the story are part of each others’ lives and there is no privacy. scene changes are aided by a screen showing different views of the run-down area, emphasising the poverty and grimness, but the set itself is full of light and life – it is, after all, summertime. John Wilson, best known for his jazz and big band orchestra, conducts a tightrope between classical and jazz, impressively falling to neither side, though swinging from one to the other. everybody knows the big numbers, and from the first strains of summertime as the opera opens, the hits just keep coming. That has its advantages – the audience is keen and eager – but also has the huge potential to disappoint. but the singers give fantastic performances. nadine benjamin’s Clara sets the tone from the start with sweetness and accuracy and just a hint of swing. eric Greene’s rendition of the simple banjo song i Got Plenty o’ nuttin’ is delightful and gorgeous, both times that he sings it. The show- stealing number, however, is given to the manipulative, drug dealing, sportin’ life, as he tells the ensemble at a church picnic that he’s not convinced by the bible stories – it ain’t necessarily so – which is brilliantly portrayed by Frederick ballentine. it’s not just the singing that’s good; it’s the acting as well. it’s only as he takes a bow that eric Greene stops limping; Crown (nmon Ford) exudes an energy and sexiness that makes bess’s infatuation with him believable; bess herself (nicole Cabell) has an air of beauty and vulnerability, making her ultimate downfall inevitable. it’s a performance full of energy and pathos, and one that will remain with you for days afterwards. u Until 17 November at the London Coliseum, London WC2N: 020-7845 9300, www.londoncoliseum.org

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