Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with its gritty story of poverty, passion and violence on the South Carolina waterfront, might seem an incongruous choice for the dinner-suited country-house opera circuit, but over thirty years on from Glyndebourne’s memorable Simon Rattle/Trevor Nunn collaboration, Grange Park Opera has now introduced the work to its repertoire. Productions aren’t so common that one begrudges it cropping up so soon after English National Opera’s staging in the autumn, and indeed GPO has benefited from a degree of cross-fertilisation of cast with its London-based cousin.

Laquita Mitchell (Bess) and Musa Ngqungwana (Porgy) © Richard Hubert Smith
Laquita Mitchell (Bess) and Musa Ngqungwana (Porgy)
© Richard Hubert Smith

GPO’s Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place in Surrey still has an unfinished feel about its unadorned plywood-and-concrete interior and (new this season) exterior colonnade, but musically and dramatically its production of Porgy is a polished affair. Francis O’Connor’s modular, patchwork set, somewhat garishly lit by David Plater, allows for sleek transformations between exterior and interior scenes in the daily life of the inhabitants of Catfish Row, slides apart to suggest the more open space of Kittiwah Island (complete with silhouetted paddle-steamer) and disintegrates before our eyes at the height of the hurricane.

Robert Winslade Anderson (Jake) and chorus © Richard Hubert Smith
Robert Winslade Anderson (Jake) and chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

Director Jean-Pierre van der Spuy marshals his team of singers with skill and purpose and takes advantage of the fact that the named smaller roles in the cast for this production effectively make up the chorus to suggest a real community of individuals. Indeed, it emphasises what an ensemble work this is, both in theory and here in practice. He tells the story with focus and compassion. If there’s a specific ‘take’ to be read from his interpretation it is a cynical or sceptical view of the profound religiosity that guides the lives of this community. The role of the Undertaker is recast as the local bible-waving pastor and the first part of the evening closes with the fired-up Crown poised to take advantage of the vulnerable Bess behind a pair of doors emblazoned with a cross and the words ‘Jesus saves’.

Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi (Sportin' Life) and Laquita Mitchell (Bess) © Richard Hubert Smith
Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi (Sportin' Life) and Laquita Mitchell (Bess)
© Richard Hubert Smith

At the undoubted head of the ensemble on opening night was the Porgy of Musa Ngqungwana, a noble portrayal of a man who ultimately seems to rise above the disadvantages that life has thrown at him, and a commanding presence on stage, with a voice to match. Laquita Mitchell caught Bess’ character weaknesses convincingly, notably her last-minute capitulation to Sportin’ Life’s happy-dust-infused temptations. Her diction could have been clearer, however, highlighting an issue with which she was not alone in this (rare) unsurtitled performance. No such problem with Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi’s struttin’ Sportin’ Life himself, though, whose “It ain’t necessarily so” let us revel in all the genius of Ira Gershwin’s wordplay.

Donovan Singletary (Crown) © Richard Hubert Smith
Donovan Singletary (Crown)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Elsewhere among the principals, Donovan Singletary was a suitably brutish Crown; Francesca Chiejina’s Clara gave us a heart-stoppingly effective “Summertime” at the start of the evening; and Sarah-Jane Lewis’ rich soprano lent especial warmth to the pious Serena. Even the ‘bit’ parts were memorable: Chantale Nurse’s no-nonsense Maria as she puts Sportin’ Life down a peg or two (“I hates yo’ struttin’ style”), Calvin Lee’s sympathetic Peter the Honeyman and Julia Daramy-Williams’s ideally poised Strawberry Woman.

In the pit, the BBC Concert Orchestra was in its element, and conductor Stephen Barlow let the brilliance and inventiveness of Gershwin’s score rip without compromising the balance with the singers on the stage above. For all the ‘number’ form of the piece, and the occasions when dashes of choreography (by Lizzie Gee) lent an air of musical theatre to proceedings, this was ultimately an authentically operatic Porgy and Bess.

****1