Cape Town Opera: Porgy and BessClifford Graham
Clifford Graham: This is no ordinary Porgy and Bess, it is a triumph of production and interpretation.
Sparse ramshackle buildings, a weathered billboard with the remnants of an old “Boxer Tobacco” sign, a rusted shipping container converted into a shebeen serving hatch. Scaffolding surrounding the remnants of a building in a futile attempt to restore dignity to a poverty stricken area. Christine Crouse along with Michael Mitchell have imagined a seventies Soweto setting for Gershwin’s immortal folk opera Porgy and Bess.
Catfish Row becomes Diepsloot under Apartheid’s heavy hand. A township on the verge of ruin, its inhabitants clinging to the remnants of an existence. Yet even here, in the face of disaster, there is joy. The energy brought forth by the cast is palpable. The music, while sometimes dissonant as is the style of Gershwin, contains some of the most memorable and beautiful musical moments ever added to an opera score. Jazz, classical and spiritual themes mingle in this poignant and sometimes dark tale of greed, murder and retribution. The production loses nothing in the re-setting from the fictitious Catfish Row to seventies Soweto. If anything, it is enhanced and made even more relevant to South African audiences.
After the production’s massive success overseas, where it was received with critical praise by British audiences and press, Cape Town has its chance to experience this extraordinary staging. Performed in the dialect of the southern African American communities of the early 20 century the odd addition of a South Africanism spoken in the vernacular heightens the relevance of the piece.
The cast have been chosen well. Xolela Sixaba’s Porgy is consummate in every way and his rendition of Bess, You is my Woman Now sends shivers through the audience. Countered by Nonhlanhla Yende’s Bess (replacing Sibongile Mngoma), My Man’s Gone Now echoes through the Artscape Opera House and is greeted with an unanimous Bravo! Other performance highlights being Aubrey Lodewyk’s performance as Jake and Miranda Tini as the imposing shebeen queen Maria. This list could go on ad infinitum, such is the standard achieved by Crouse’s cast and chorus. The opening sequence of the second act leading into It Ain’t Necessarily So (Tshepo Moagi as Sportin’ Life) is spellbinding in its sheer impact.
Choreography by Sibonakaliso Ndaba is idiomatically joyous and with a smattering of Pantsula thrown in for good measure, many a foot taps out the intricate rhythms.
Conducted by Albert Horne, the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra add a sublime interpretation of Gershwin’s score, a full to capacity opera house appreciating every note. Maestro Horne can also take well deserved credit for training the chorus.
This is no ordinary Porgy and Bess, it is a triumph of production and interpretation. George and Ira Gershwin could not have imagined the global relevance of their creation. Catfish Row reaches out to every part of the world where poverty and oppression exist.
Porgy and Bess is at Artscape on October 4 and 6.
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Artscape Theatre Complex, DF Malan Street Foreshore Cape Town Western Cape South Africa