Gershwin - Porgy and Bess

Opéra Comique, Monday June 16 2008

Conductor: Wayne Marshall. Production: Robyn Orlin. Sets: Alexandre de Dardel. Videos: Philippe Lainé. Costumes: Olivier Bériot. Porgy: Kevin Short. Bess: Indira Mahajan. Crown: Daniel Washington. Serena: Angela Simpson. Clara: Laquite Mitchell. Maria: Bonita Hyman. Jake: Eric Greene. Sportin' Life: Jermaine Smith. Atlanta Opera Chorus. New World Symphony, America's Orchestral Academy.

For some reason my expectations of this production of Porgy – in fact the first I’ve ever seen – weren’t high. I was disgruntled at Lyon’s having, at the same time, a staging by the team responsible for the marvellous “hip-hop” Les Paladins, and worried that the Paris one was directed by a choreographer: rarely a good thing. So I didn’t pay much attention to who and what I was going to see at the Opéra Comique.

As it turned out, from the first bars of the overture I was intrigued: which (young-looking) orchestra was this, producing so much rich sound with such excellent rhythm, tuning and togetherness and clearly enjoying every minute? My low expectations gave way to a very pleasant surprise: it was, musically at least, one of the best evenings of the season.

Oddly, the production, though not by the same team, brought Les Paladins to mind. The modern-dress costumes were, most of the time, similar: jeans and an assortment of brightly-coloured tee-shirts, “American Apparel’ style, sometimes with an equally bright and contrasting wind-cheater over. Everyone had colourful Nike trainers. For the funeral, they all wore black; for the picnic, white cottons.

And, as in Les Paladins, the staging used videos, though not so complex or with quite the same success. The set was simple: a creamy-coloured box with plain doors at the rear and sides. A long white table and an assortment of white chairs. There was a circular steel girder contraption above, and a large, curved screen suspended from that, which revolved and moved up and down during the show, sometimes forming a curtain on which fights or rape appeared in silhouette. Videos were projected on the screen: fish swimming around; scenes of abject poverty, relevant to the plot, from South African townships; the sea and a paper boat; a sea of waving grass and a palm tree in the wind for the island picnic. These would, I think, have been enough. But stagehands also projected smaller images on to sheets manipulated by the cast, or carried cameras that allowed live close-ups of the action – sometimes to dramatic effect, but more often creating unnecessary video clutter.

Some of the stage business was effective: the way Robbins' body, laid out on a sheet on the long table, was slowly hauled away to the rear like a coffin at a cremation. Some was less so: Jake, lost in the storm, filmed close up as he dunked his head in an aquarium that had been wheeled on, with that paper boat bobbing around in the water.

Quite often, singers appeared through the side doors and sang in front of the pit.

The singing, dancing, acting and playing were a rare treat. This was a young American cast, rehearsed to perfection, revved up and totally committed. Soloists and chorus formed a single team, as if really members of one community. And they all sang up a storm, belting it out like true believers in a vocal style just the right “jazzy” side of operatic, so convincingly joyful or movingly mournful that any vocal failings were simply irrelevant.

It makes little sense, in the circumstances, to single anyone out, but Angela Simpson's Serena was marvellous and the giant young Eric Greene as Jake was remarkable. Jermaine Smith, in a series of dreadlocks hairstyles and superbly
stylish, blingy dealer streetwear, made an oustandingly lithe, serpentine Sportin' Life, able to leap up on to the legs of an upturned table and stay there, in balance, to sing a song.

Commitment, verve and risk-taking of this kind are, well – I said it above – all too rare at the opera, and the enthusiastic reception, with long applause, was deserved.

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