"Twentieth century opera" is a term that unfortunately tends to send audiences running for the hills. But not only is Porgy and Bess that very thing, it's also a supremely successful one boasting more legendary hits - "Summertime," "I Got Plenty O' Nothin'" "I Loves You, Porgy" just for starters - than many composers manage in a lifetime. So how come Trevor Nunn's new production is such a disappointment?
The jaw-dropping scale of the 1935 original - almost four hours long, orchestra of 56, chorus of over 40 and numerous principals with operatic voices who cannot sing 8 times a week - makes it a commercial non-starter. But ever since staging it at Glyndebourne opera house in 1986 and again at Covent Garden, Nunn has dreamed of reconfiguring the work to make it more accessible. Which is why the advertising campaign for his production at the Savoy Theater boldly announces the result as "The masterpiece reborn as a musical."
A more appropriate line would be, "A funny thing happened on the way to the opera." Nunn has refashioned the show as a book musical, replacing all the recitative (not all of which was red-hot with inspiration in the first place) with dialogue drawn from the DuBose Heyward novel that originally inspired George Gershwin.
The really radical surgery, however, has been performed on the score which now runs at 2 hours 20 minutes plus interval. Out go extended musical interludes and most of the incidental material. Musical director Gareth Valentine has rescored the remaining music for a band of just 20. His orchestrating skill means the marvellously varied tones and colours have largely been retained, but a string quartet is nothing like as lustrous as a full string section.
To make it singable by musical theatre talent, Valentine has transposed the vocal lines. Bess's high, dramatic soprano is now in a broodier mezzo range forNicola Hughes and Porgy's dark-toned bass is a lighter baritone for Clarke Peters.
On the plus side, this all makes the text more audible, but at a considerable price. Flawed though some of Gershwin's writing was - it was his first opera - he whipped up real drama though the extremes and sheer power of his orchestral and vocal writing. Outside of the impassioned choral singing on display, much of that has disappeared.
A more driven staging could have disguised some of the problems created by the editing. But John Gunter's design makes the stage so cramped it precludes much activity. Even when the stage is cleared for the picnic in the second act, Jason Pennycooke's choreography is energetic rather than dramatic. Elsewhere, Nunn gives everyone plenty of stage "business" - working with nets, sitting at tables gambling and so on - but it all feels illustrative rather than invigorating.
Most of the evening rests on the shoulders of the supremely dedicated leads. Clarke Peters seizes Porgy with every fibre of his being. But robbed both of the character detail that has gone from the original score and the stentorian power of of a real bass voice, his effort falls short.
Hughes struggles still more. An outstanding dancer, she has immense presence but gets to show little of her real talent and she lacks the requisite power through most of her vocal range.
It's hard not to come away from this misbegotten enterprise thinking that had Gershwin wanted to write "Porgy and Bess" as a musical, he would have done so himself.