Is it ‘racist’ not to love Porgy and Bess?

In the 75 years between the abolition of slavery and the rise of the Civil Rights movement, South Carolina kept its black population ‘free’ but constrained by the Jim Crow laws – Democrat legislation, incidentally, for everyone who thinks discrimination is exclusively Republican – and living a separate existence from even poor whites.

So, set in 1922, in a Charleston where nobody dances the charleston, Porgy and Bess is mostly about poor black folks hating other poor black folks.

Since the characters are largely drug dealers, murderers, prostitutes and pimps, it could have been the Breaking Bad of 1935 of it hadn’t been for the Gershwins: white middle class Jews from up North whose knowledge of the South, its people – or, importantly, its music – was gleaned in a handful of country-club visits to the author of the original book DuBose Heyward, himself a trust-fund scion of the planter elite.

English National Opera celebrates 50 years at the Coliseum with a grandstanding production of Porgy and Bess, the first in its history.  Sharing resource with Dutch National Opera and the Met, an enormous cast of 70 is drawn from a worldwide pool of talent, a massive revolving set represents the tenements of Catfish Row, the wonderful John Wilson conducts a supersized ENO orchestra.

There are two ways to stage it: in 2008, Trevor Nunn stripped back the recitative, introduced more dialogue and framed the songs in a more deliberately musical theatre format, bringing down the arias a key or so to make them more accessibly sung by Nicola Hughes and Clarke Peters. It worked, as did Cape Town Opera’s production on this same Coliseum stage in 2012 when they gave the material more energy and relevance by setting it in the township of Soweto.

It’s easy to forget that the themes of Porgy and Bess are both mystical and religious and it’s here that James Robinson‘s full-scale nothing-left-out grand opera production really excels – from the Southern Baptist prayer meetings and funeral to Porgy’s conviction when he finally pursues Bess to New York that he is headed for the Promised Land – the thread is consistently woven, and the magnificent swell and ebb of the choral numbers is pure Gospel singing.

The chorus is outstanding and the absolute highlight of the piece, but soloists are also remarkable.  At the top of the show, Nadine Benjamin rescues ‘Summertime’ from countless terrible jazz interpretations and restores it to both lullaby and anthem, Eric Greene‘s elevated baritone makes Porgy a more credible romantic and gives ‘Bess, You is My Woman Now’ an air of pride and charm over possession or patriarchy. Equally Nmon Ford‘s Crown is more nuanced than the usual boorish bully and the moment he steals Bess away from the pier could not be more sensitively or dangerously delineated.

However stunning the staging, the singing, the orchestra, there’s a problem.  With the exception of Porgy – uncomfortably painted by the Gershwins as a ‘noble savage‘ – the characters remain stereotypes as though glimpsed through a car window driving by a dodgy ‘hood.

And at well over three hours, that can be a long time to look through a car window.

Until 17 November.