Britain's first `Porgy and Bess': powerful, flawless

When British stage director Trevor Nunn walked into the first rehearsal of ``Porgy and Bess,'' he looked at the gathering of black faces and stated simply: ``Glyndebourne will never be the same again, and it shouldn't be.'' Mr. Nunn's prediction was more prescient than he could have imagined. That Glyndebourne production, which premi`ered last summer (for 16 performances) and is being revived here for another short, sold-out run, has brought the kind of effusive praise from critics one rarely, if ever, reads. Indeed, George Gershwin's soulful opera will itself never be the same, at least for those who have had the privilege of experiencing, at one of the world's most prestigious opera houses, such a glorious rendering.

It is, in fact, the incongruity of the piece with the place which is perhaps most striking; Glyndebourne Festival Opera is largely considered a setting for small-scale classical operas. Then there's the matter of casting. Virtually the entire ensemble must be black, and Britain just hasn't, as yet, cultivated black talent to the extent that can be found, for example, in America. But probably most significant of all, before this production there has been no precedent in Britain for ``Porgy and Bess''; Nunn's version is the very first complete staging of this Gershwin classic ever to be mounted here.

Most agree that if anyone could pull it off, it is Trevor Nunn, former chief of the Royal Shakespeare Company and co-artistic progenitor of such recent internationally acclaimed hits as ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' ``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express,'' and ``Les Mis'erables.''

And from the opening scene of Catfish Row on a dusky eve, with semi-silhouetted figures moving in slow motion to folk-jazz rhythms, it's clear that this is no ordinary production. The richness of sets by John Gunter and the variegated moods of lighting by David Hersey never cease to amaze.

As for the individual performances, they are, without exception, flawless. The cast is an international mix of top British, Italian, South African, and Jamaican artists, with most of the lead players coming from America. And each is as accomplished at acting as he or she is at singing. Jamaican-born actor Willard White gives an astonishingly powerful portrayal of Porgy. Of particular note apart from him is Memphis-born Gregg Baker as Crown; to have two such arresting talents on the same stage is just one of many thrills of the show.

But the real magic of this production is Nunn's approach. ``Porgy and Bess'' is stripped of its folksy minstrel tradition. As Damon Evans, an American actor who plays Sportin' Life, puts it in the program: ``We had to relearn - sometimes painfully - our self-imposed stereotypes of our characters and our culturally imposed stereotypes of `Porgy and Bess.'''

The result is a ``Porgy'' in which the tightly knit community of Catfish Row is black, certainly; but the overwhelming impression is that they are people first, black second.

Perhaps the finest tribute to the show is the response it evokes. When, for example, the crippled Porgy, in Act I, takes pity on Bess and opens his door to her after the community has shunned her for loose living, the combination of mood and music sets skin atingling.

And when, at the final moment, Porgy casts aside his crutches (a dramatic departure from the usual staging tradition) and walks haltingly, but purposefully, into the incandescent twilight to reclaim his Bess, whom he has come to love, the impact is tangible.

Still, the question remains: Is ``Porgy and Bess'' opera?

After this version, the question seems irrelevant.

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