Whether it was the format or the repertory, Porgy and Bess was the first evening at Grimeborn 2017 that produced a full house, and the audience as a whole was clearly delighted. However, as a performance the pleasures were more incidental than sustained. This event was an affectionate affirmation of the esteem this wonderful music now enjoys, and an unintended tribute to its resilience and adaptability. But it was not really a night at the opera, which is the point of this festival.

PorgyGershwin’s opera of 1935 really needs no introduction, though it is remarkable that thirty years ago you could not have said that so easily. In the meantime the boundaries between genres of musical theatre and opera have thankfully blurred, stuffiness has receded, and there is as a result a far greater openness to the musical scope and dramatic range of this masterpiece. Above all this opera now has a rich reception history of its own, especially within the jazz world, where so many of its numbers have become standards for improvisation and variation that acknowledge the rich harmonic textures and long-breathed melodic invention of the originals.

Grimeborn’s typical approach to opera is to downsize the orchestra and reconfigure or relocate the stage drama. In this case Basement Orchestra takes the opposite approach. Here the stage is taken over by a fifty-person orchestra and the two singers are relegated to the suspended platform which is customarily the home of the band. This has mixed results.

The performance lasts an hour and consists of all the most memorable solo and duet numbers from the opera. Orchestral players pop up at intervals to provide plot summaries: some are much better at projecting text than others. This is essentially a concert performance with no attempt at dramatization outside the purely musical terms of engagement. The two performers, Talia Cohen and Masimba Ushe, are accomplished and talented vocalists who take on a variety of parts beyond the two title roles, but do not distinguish between them. Although they have microphones there are problems of sound balance and words are not always easy to distinguish. Was there a proper technical run-through before the press night?

PorgyBasement Orchestra is essentially a pop-up band which is accustomed to performing in unusual spaces. There are many delightful strengths to this way of hearing Gershwin’s music, but as a way of representing an opera it must be held wanting. It is certainly a joy to hear these classic numbers accompanied with a full body of strings and not simply in a wind and brass reduction. By this stage in his career, after careful study with various mentors, Gershwin really knew how to handle a full symphony orchestra palette, and in this opened-out format we get to hear so many delightful solos and shifting layers of sound colour that normally are obscured when the orchestra is buried in an opera house pit.

So you felt the touch of something special at the first sway of the strings in the opening of ‘Summertime’, and there were similar moments of intensity throughout: the plangent clarinet in ‘I got plenty of nuttin’, the undertow of pain provided by the bass pizzicato in ‘ Oh Bess, where’s my Bess’, the delightfully insinuating tuba at the start of ‘There’s a boat leaving now for New York’, and the glorious collective display that concluded the evening in ‘ Oh Lord, I am on my way’.

However, over a whole evening it is rather like being invited to wolf one exquisite dessert after another without variation. The lack of dramatic setting, detailed characterisation and verbal pointing contributes to the setting of a series of slow tempos that at times risks pulling even this flexible music out of shape and distorting the phrasing of the singers. Conductor Guy Jones marshals his forces with skill, but too many of the items start turgidly only to lurch into a brilliant up-beat tempo in the later sections. As showmanship this undoubtedly worked with the audience, but it was hardly true enough to the individual textures and lineaments of the songs.

When they got the chance the singers impressed with clear, clean tone, sassy scat singing, and refulgent tone, but in reality they were extra instruments, additional threads in the carpet of orchestra detail, rather than fully fledged operatic characters.

For an amateur orchestra this was undoubtedly a fine effort. Sadly there was no programme to it is not possible here to acknowledge the fine players individually who generated the many delightful solos that riffed neatly and authentically with the lines projected by the singers. The strings failed to move as one on a few occasions, but otherwise ensemble was well maintained. The brass section was particularly good throughout, whether it was a matter of trombones at full tilt, or the soft sexy scrunch of muted trumpet. There is something splendid underway whenever you have the chance to hear 4 horns, 3 trombones, 3 trumpets and a tuba close-up in action together.

Whether it was the format or the repertory that was the draw, this was the first evening at Grimeborn 2017 that produced a full house, and the audience as a whole was clearly delighted. However, as a performance the pleasures were more incidental than sustained. This event was an affectionate affirmation of the esteem this wonderful music now enjoys, and an unintended tribute to its resilience and adaptability. But it was really not a night at the opera, which is the point of this festival.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…