Gershwin’s (or The Gershwins’ as the performance program says) Porgy and Bess performances in Israel were not spared of some non-musical controversy, as a few weeks before the show there was big pressure on the Cape Town Opera to cancel the tour (apparently planned for four years) in Tel Aviv.  Luckily the South-African institution decided not to boycott the Israeli audiences and there I was last night enjoying a very different first performance as a subscriber of the New Israeli Opera new season.

(video source ntobekoleo)

The history of Porgy and Bess is not deprived of controversy at all, and this more recent would be just one added and probably not the last one. Composed by George Gershwin in 1933-34 on a libretto by DuBose Heyward and based on his novel, the opera is written for an almost all black singers team, and the lyrics are written by Ira Gershwin in an Afro-American dialect. Although the structure and the lyric material represent a very solid and self-contained operatic material the opera was premiered on Broadway and did not reach the Metropolitan Opera where the Gershwins dreamed to be mounted but after their death and 50 years after the premiere. While a popular film by Otto Preminger staring Sidney Poitier (doubled by a singer voice) made the opera famous world-wide, and the opening area ‘Summertime’ made it back to the first page of the big American songbook and famous jazz standards, part of the Afro-American community did not accept easily the opera as a cultural accolade but pointed to the racial stereotypes that accumulate in the story and its characters. I found a detailed and well-written description of the racial controversy around Porgy and Bess at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess#Racial_controversy. Having the performance staged at a major opera house in the country that walked the difficult road from a racist state to freedom and reconciliation is symbolic.

(video source Praguedive)

(video source korkhmmaregon)

The vision brought to stage by the Opera from Cape Town and the director Christine Crouse transplants the conflict from the South Carolina fisher’s village to the Soweto suburbs during the peak of the apartheid rule, using the sets and costumes designed by Michael Mitchell. It is the first time that I am hearing the opera sung in a full performance, so I had quite a strange feeling in some moments, as the more famous tunes sounded different than in their jazz or pop music variants. Yet it was a convincing version with the gospel vibrations coming up much stronger than some of the Jewish roots of a few tunes and motives in the score – but this was expected. The team of singers were good and authentic in their African rendition of the story, with baritone Xolela Sixaba impressing with his musical but also acting talent as Porgy, and with sopranos Philisa Sibeko (Clara) and Tina Meme (Serene) showing great vocal skills, better last night in my opinion than those of Sibongile Mngoma who was trusted with being Bess. The Opera Orchestra (which is also the Israel Symphony Orchestra from Rishon LeZion) directed by David Stern was uninspired and too loud but this seems to be an almost chronic problem of its performances.