Sound of the south

 

Few but the most inveterate theatre-goers in these islands would, until now, have had the opportunity of seeing a full-scale, professional production of the Gershwins' famous opera for the theatre. So what a buzz to be introduced to its bold, muscular music and poignant storyline by the full-blown New York company, complete with excellent 34-piece band.

As the lights go up, slowly, softly to the strains of Marlene Villafane's gloriously sung Summertime, one can almost smell the shrimps baking and feel the sweaty prickle of the heat hanging over Catfish Row, in the deep southern city of Charleston. In his depiction of these picturesque street people, Gershwin has created a deceptively idyllic picture, whose visual and musical images derive from the time he spent among the Gullah negroes of James Island.

But the idyll is soon shattered, precipitating some of the great, tragic set-pieces of the opera - Robbins's wake, with Theresa Hamm-Smith in glorious spiritual voice as the widow Serena; the passionate chanting of six simultaneous prayers in the storm scene; the spine-tingling Bess You Is My Woman Now exchange between Brian Gibson's wideeyed Porgy and Elizabeth Graham's flashing, ample Bess; and the almost unbearable, almost biblical, poignancy of Bess's Summertime lullaby to the orphaned child and Porgy's shining faced affirmation of faith, as he heads off for the unknown place that is New York in search of the love of his life.

Porgy and Bess runs until Saturday.