To my mind, not enough operas open with a fist fight. La Boheme – just a couple of artistic layabouts huddling for warmth in a Parisian garret; Tosca - a wanted man hiding out in a church; and the opening scene of The Marriage of Figaro sees our hero measuring up space for his new king size bed. It was a particularly enjoyable moment therefore when Cape Town Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess at the ENO opened up with a lusty exchange of blows between two of the cast.
Incongruous perhaps in the gilded surroundings of the ENO’s Coliseum, but this production of Porgy and Bess, which first toured the UK in 2009, brings the rough-house, bar room elements of the story to the fore. George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s Catfish Row, which director Christina Crouse has transported from 30s Carolina to 70s Johannesburg, is not the place for shrinking violets: gambling, fighting, drinking and drug-taking are all part of the daily routine.
The decision to relocate the action across the Atlantic to South Africa is predictable perhaps, given Cape Town Opera’s origins. The real question though, is whether this staging adds much to understanding the action. Despite the repeated appearance on stage of a policeman with a strong Afrikaans accent, cast members in traditional African dress, and a set decorated with posters of anti-apartheid campaigners, I overheard my neighbours having an argument over where the action was set; Catfish Row, North Carolina or Catfish Row, Johannesburg. So you might say it didn’t – at least for some of us anyway.
However, with a geography A-level under my belt and a small amount of historical knowledge at my finger tips, to this audience member, the transfer was plain enough. The parallels between pre-war Deep South and apartheid South Africa are there for all to see, so while not an overly risky move, it was one that worked well.
In any case, there isn’t a huge amount for the audience to understand, because the plot is even thinner than the usual. Centred on the poor residents of Catfish Row, the opera focuses on the doomed relationship between Porgy, the much-loved local cripple, and Bess, the beautiful but flawed girlfriend of local hardman Crown. However, I wasn’t there for the story, it was for Gershwin’s score, and not just that compilation CD favourite ‘Summertime’.
Consequently there are plenty of opportunities for the company to distinguish themselves. Victor Ryan Robertson’s drug dealing Sportin’ Life, was a sinuous, feline, but ultimately menacing presence on stage, as he used his ‘happy dust’ to tempt Bess to her downfall, and Arline Jaftha put in an excellent turn as the tragic Serena, mourning the death of her husband at the hands of Ntobeko Rwanqa’s Crown. Of the lead performances, it was Xolela Sixaba as Porgy who excelled the most, easily gaining the audience’s affection for a resounding vocal performance and for his touching portrayal of the Opera’s tragic hero.
However, as good as some of these individual performances were, it was the collective drive and fervour of the cast as a whole which really stood out: this production really was greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately it was the ensemble numbers in the second act which really grabbed the attention and these were another manifestation of that physicality which kicked off the performance.
A large chorus meant that even sitting way up in the gods, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck during some of these. You could feel the energy, vitality and vigour from the cast flow out into audience and the sheer enthusiasm was more than enough to bestow that metaphorical fourth star upon Cape Town Opera’s efforts.