Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Porgy and Bess @ Barbican Hall, London

20 October 2017

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

One would be well advised either to know the work in advance or to read the synopsis in the programme very carefully before listening to the Litton version of Porgy and Bess, named after its creator, the American conductor Andrew Litton. This is because some scenes are cut altogether, and those that remain are shortened, being generally stripped of their recitative. Nevertheless, this concert performance from the London Orchestra da Camera, Inner Voices and the Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple, proved just how many advantages there can be to experiencing the work in this hour-long concert suite version that focuses very much on the main songs and choruses.

The performance certainly enabled Gershwin’s score to be appreciated in a way that a fully-staged version with a lengthy run never could, because the purse strings would inevitably restrict the orchestral forces. Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris, currently on at the Dominion Theatre, employs a larger orchestra than most West End shows, but it is still only a quarter of the size of the sixty-strong ensemble that graced the stage of the Barbican Hall. In addition, many productions in endeavouring to make the work feel dynamic and visually arresting can actually make it seem too facile by failing to imbue it with sufficient gravitas. Conversely, this performance, by enabling the richness of the music to shine through and allowing us to focus entirely on the emotions of the characters delivering the songs, gave the entire piece the requisite sense of weight.

The four soloists, who sang almost all of the parts between them (individual chorus members contributed a few lines), were superb. Francesca Chiejina, who gave a heartfelt rendition of ‘Summertime’ and went on to play Bess, revealed an expansive soprano that succeeded in combining immense richness with an overarching feeling of purity. Abigail Kelly imbued a strong sense of character into every note that she sang, while Rodney Earl Clarke revealed a warm, firm and nuanced bass-baritone. He possibly struggled the most with projection, but Porgy’s lines are certainly the hardest to assert in this way. Another truly outstanding performance came from Ronald Samm who in delivering ‘A woman is a sometime thing’ and ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ revealed a brilliant tenor, and presented a master class in how to put on a performance and engage an audience.

The chorus, comprising Inner Voices and the Crouch End Festival Chorus, proved both spirited and effective, while the first half of the concert featured a new piece by Laura Bowler entitled Navigating the dog watch. This described a three-week journey that Bowler took on a tall ship from Cape Town to Saint Helena and Ascension Island. Bowler’s aim was to create ‘textural shifts within a mass of very slow moving harmonic content’ and to treat the choir as an extension of the orchestra, rather than something separate. With the performance including projections of a windswept sailing ship at sea, the choir tapping their thighs, percussionists flapping paperback books and the pianist Peter Jaekel leaning into the instrument to twang strings, she certainly succeeded in her aim of creating a deeply evocative work.

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Porgy and Bess @ Barbican Hall, London