Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us


Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Cape Town Opera

Porgy, Xotela Sixaba

Bess, Lisa Daltirus

Crown, Ntobeko Rwanqa

Serena, Arline Jaftha

Clara, Pretty Yende

Maria, Miranda Tini

Jake, Aubrey Lodewyk

Sportin’ Life, Victor Ryan Robertson

Mingo, Mthunzi Mbombela
Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation Ensemble  


Conductor, David Charles Abell

Director, Christine Crouse

Designer, Michael Mitchell

Lighting, Steve Allsop

Choreographer, Sibonakaliso Ndaba

Chorus Master, Albert Horne


Royal Festival Hall, London, 26 October 2009

Is Porgy and Bess really an opera or is it just a musical with pretensions to greatness? Or, to put it another way, was composer George Gershwin the great White Hope of American music? Did Gershwin really create the first great American opera? Or are we too ready to believe what we are told?


Gershwin occupied a special position in American music for he successfully, to an extent, crossed from Tin Pan Alley to Carnegie Hall and back. But the difficulty I have in accepting that he is the renaissance man in 20th century American music is that he had little, or no, competition. Who else straddled the two sides of music as he did? In a slightly earlier era Victor Herbert wrote for both places, indeed, his 2nd Cello Concerto inspired Dvořák to write a similar work, but of his contemporaries Gershwin had a free hand – Irving Berlin kept saying that he was intending to write a Symphony, but he never did, and Vincent Youmans, plagued with ill health, kept promising a Piano Concerto, but, likewise, it never saw the light of day. Perhaps Harold Arlen came closest with his Blues Opera (1956/1957) and the subsequent orchestral suite he prepared, which was recorded by Kostelanetz in 1957 (Columbia CL 1099, currently available on DRG 19044), but it has never caught on with the public, an oddity considering this composer’s many successes with his songs.

Gershwin’s thinking, throughout, is totally Broadway musical; almost every “aria”, or set piece, call it what you will, has a conclusive ending which demands applause – just as in a musical. Also, Gershwin is happiest when writing an obvious set piece; the chorus I Can’t Sit Down is a perfect example of the composer working well and enjoying his material, but the recitative and linking music on either side of it is negligible. And here is the stumbling block of the whole piece; so much of it is naïve at best, banal at the worst. Spoken dialogue would have been a welcome release from Gershwin’s ill conceived recitatives and, because of this major failing of the work, a performance as good as this one does it no favours for it only serves to show up the lacunae far too clearly.

This semi staged performance,
by Cape Town Opera, was almost wholly successful. Xotela Sixaba was a very believable Porgy, strong in character, filled with love for the right woman and desperate to find her. Playing the whole role on his knees made no difference to his delivery, which was always forthright and clearly delivered. Lisa Daltirus was a fine Bess, by turns loving towards Porgy and weak when it comes to the white powder in small plastic packets she gets from Victor Ryan Robertson’s Sportin’ Life, well performed  -  but I cannot understand why he took it upon himself to not sing the notes Gershwin wrote for this character? Perhaps he thought he was John W Bubbles, the creator of the role on Broadway, and thus had a special dispensation.


In a note in the programme, David Charles Abell wrote, “As performers of classical music, our mantra is ‘as the composer intended.’” One wonders why this didn’t apply to Robertson, not to mention the intrusive trumpet improvsations which accompanied his performance of It Ain’t Necessarily So.


Pretty Yende opened the show with a lovely performance of Summertime – the best number in the work – singing this lullaby to her baby with no baby in sight. Soloists and chorus performed well in bringing this piece to life, but words were all but inaudible – surtitles would have been welcome.*


The orchestra was rather square and lack lustre– there was little swing. At times, when the solo male voices wentdown  into their lower register,s there was a tendency for the sound to be lost in the orchestral sound.


Despite these small points this was a performance to welcome with open ears, even if, like me, you don’t see it as a way forwards in American music, only as a bayou.


Bob Briggs


* We had a similar thought during the same week, watching at home on Sky Arts 2 the studio film made from the Glyndebourne production (conductor Simon Rattle); it came across as an uncomfortable hybrid, a struggle to decipher the text; well done in parts, but finally unconvincing for reasons explored by Bob Briggs above. [Editor]

Background article about the only opera company in South Africa from The Times

For complete capitulation to Gershwin's "through-sung original where only the whites are denied the gift of song" see The Independent.