It would be easy to list a number of ways in which Porgy and Bess might be considered unique. Following a string of successful musical comedies and Broadway revues, it was advertised as “an American folk opera” and first saw life in a theatre there rather than at the Met.
A powerful work, it is centred on the poor community of Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. There are obvious parallels with life in the townships and so – to quote from a programme note – “the subject matter has a strong resonance in modern South Africa”.
The various scenes of the opera focus on some of the by-products of poverty. Gambling and drinking lead inevitably to fighting but, especially when danger threatens in the shape of death or tempest, the residents portrayed fall back on the solace that religion has to offer.
Summertime, the familiar lullaby which Clara sings twice to her baby, occurs for the first time early in Act I and is taken up by Bess at the start of Act III. Philisa Sibeko and Tskane Valentine Maswanganyi place it gently in the context of the scenes to which it belongs rather than drawing special attention to it as one of the hit tunes of the opera.
Conductor Albert Horne drew attention in his note to the African “urge to move when you are singing”. Maswanganyi, other principals and chorus members demonstrate that throughout, in actions which engage eye and ear in equal measure.
Meanwhile, Xolela Sixaba’s huge voice lends contrasting poignancy and vitality to the well-known Porgy solos such as Bess, You Is My Woman and I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.
It is not too fanciful to suggest that choral singing in the religious ensembles had what we vaguely recognise as an African ring to it. Tschepo Moagi [Sporting Life] obviously relished It Ain’t Necessarily So – Gershwin’s antidote which urges against taking the Bible too seriously.
Supplemented by a few rip-roaring trumpet improvisations onstage, the Welsh Opera musicians played stylishly, to underline their familiarity with Gershwin’s jazzy idiom.