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Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
EMI Classics DVD
£19.99 184 minutes
(2006)

Why wait until the musical opens? The British Theatre Guide can reveal that Sir Trevor Nunn's Porgy and Bess is a stylish, beautifully sung delight with music of the highest order and a suffusing brightness that perfectly places it in the American Deep South.

It may not be commonly known but the £3 million musical version of George and Ira Gershwin's opera is not Sir Trevor's first attempt at directing the piece.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, he directed an operatic version at Glyndebourne that was subsequently recorded for posterity and is available as an EMI Classics DVD.

If anything, beyond the film itself, is a measure of the quality of the team put together for this production, it is the fact that subsequently, director, conductor and lead performer have all become knights of the realm. This DVD might well persuade viewers that each accolade was well deserved.

The 1935 opera tells its love-story set against the kind of Black poverty with underlying humanity portrayed so often by August Wilson. It contains many memorable songs and will inevitably leave you humming at the end of the three-hour running time. The best known of the classics include Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So and I got Plenty of Nuttin'.

We shall have to see how Sir Trevor has reworked this old favourite to turn it into a Twenty-First Century musical but his operatic touch is almost flawless. In achieving this, he is aided by The London Philharmonic Orchestra led by perhaps the most prominent conductor of our day, Sir Simon Rattle and by The Glyndebourne Chorus.

This high-class team reaches its peak in a particularly impressive and dramatic way, two-thirds of the way through, as first a storm and then a murder liven up the drama.

The singing support is fronted by Sir Willard White, a man with a fantastic bass-baritone voice and acting ability that, while not out of the very top drawer, was good enough to persuade Sir Trevor to cast him as Othello opposite his own wife, Imogen Stubbs and Sir Ian McKellen.

Sir Willard plays the crippled Porgy, a poor man who inherits the lovely scarlet woman Bess, played by Cynthia Haymon, a very talented soprano who can also act. This unlikely couple fall in love after Bess' not quite husband, Gregg Baker's bad boy Crown, murders a man, Robbins, over a game of craps (dice) while high on happy dust. The tragedy invokes general mourning led by Cynthia Clarey singing us to tears as the newly widowed Serena.

Perhaps the highlight of the opera, certainly for the romantic, is the confirmation of Porgy and Bess's love when they fall into each other's arms and sing the gorgeous, if dangerously ungrammatical, duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now. Somehow though, you know that after a high point like this everything must end badly.

That fear is confirmed as Crown returns for Bess, giving Gregg Baker the opportunity to show off his body-built physique and a rich baritone voice, as the big man grapples first with his old flame and then her new man.

Porgy and Bess is not a classical opera in that its musical influences include Negro spirituals, gospel and particularly jazz. This could well make it an ideal candidate for conversion into a musical and indeed, many jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong have recorded their own adapted versions of George Gershwin's songs.

Sir Trevor Nunn will have a big job in living up to this delightful operatic version when the musical opens at the Savoy Theatre. If nothing else, it is hard to believe that his new cast can match the singing skills demonstrated on this DVD. However, if his latest venture really does give the same pleasure as his first attempt, London should be in for a real treat.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher