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Cape Town Opera’s production marks 75 years since George Gershwin’s early death

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Porgy and Bess is George Gershwin’s most ambitious work and the opera that gave the world those achingly familiar classics, Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Cape Town Opera’s high-energy production shifts the action from 1920s South Carolina to apartheid-era Johannesburg in the 1970s.

The tale of the poverty-stricken but tight-knit black community of Catfish Row transfers easily to South Africa, the run-down setting becoming a small enclave of a Soweto township of abandoned half-finished buildings and corrugated iron huts.

It tells the moving story of crippled beggar Porgy’s attempts to rescue the beautiful Bess from both drug addiction and her drunken, violent lover Crown.

Xolela Sixaba is affecting as determined Porgy, playing him with stature while moving around the stage on his knees, and Nonhlanhla Yende is excellent as she captures Bess’s torn personality, desperate to make a clean break but prisoner to her urges.

Ntobeko Rwanqa as the intimidating Crown and Victor Ryan Robertson as sleazy cocaine dealer Sportin’ Life are both good too, while the choregraphy brims with vitality, the cast dancing, jumping and sliding about, their hyperactive movements underlining Porgy’s predicament.

If you’ve never seen it before, it’s thrilling to hear those great Gershwin numbers in their original context, and sung in the operatic voices for which they were written. To my inexperienced ears at least, these sometimes over-familiar tunes were injected with freshness.

Debate has raged over where the work fits into the theatrical canon: is it a fully-fledged opera, an operatic musical, or something in between?

George Gershwin called it a “folk opera”, but however you label it, Cape Town Opera’s production certainly sat comfortably on the Coliseum’s stage.

* Cape Town Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess is at the London Coliseum until July 21

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