Review – Porgy and Bess, Grange Park Opera

Friday 21 June 2019

Ok, so we lied. Well sorta. This isn’t so much a review of George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess (libretto by Edwin DuBose Heyward from his 1925 novel, lyrics Ira Gershwin)* as it is a take on the whole experience of visiting Grange Park Opera.

Now this is not the The Grange Festival of opera in Hampshire. This is Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Surrey. The Hampshire location is where Grange Park Opera used to be but The Grange Festival which is now there has used the Grange moniker too. Confusing? Yes of course it is. You might imagine that people turn up at the wrong location on occasion. Of course they do.

Grange Park Opera is the one that’s held on the 300 acre estate that Bamber Gascoigne inherited from his Duchess aunt. Our starter for ten is, “Where are the Duchess’ ashes buried?” Well, they’re under the string section of the orchestra pit of course. We later found out that a friend of ours was one of the violins. We can assure you, it’s the first time he’s performed on top of a Duchess.

If Phil had ever been to Glyndebourne (he hasn’t) he would say it’s all very similar but with a slightly smaller auditorium. So here’s the stats: It has a capacity of 750 (Glyndebourne has 850). The 5 tier auditorium is based on La Scala and it’s the newest and fastest erection of an opera house ever. It was built in 11 months, although the auditorium is still a bit unfinished. But we did enjoy the pre-decimal currency embedded in its floor and displays “From the Duchess’ attic” as we glided up the stairs.

We dressed up. “Stylish creativity” is encouraged but we failed to stretch to that. We quaffed champagne. We wandered around the gardens trying not to let our heels sink into the lawn as we admired the planting. And we found ourselves behind, or in front of, or beside Katie Derham at almost every available opportunity.

It is de rigueur to dine in one of the restaurants or take a picnic for the 100 minute interval. Yes, 100 minutes. Imagine the possibilities for alcoholic over-indulged embarrassments after that. We took a fairly elaborate picnic and although Phil poo-pooed Brent’s suggestion of taking a candelabra for our table it would not have been out of place. Fill your hamper as immodestly as possible or risk suffering considerable picnic envy.

Now we know little to nothing about opera but a bit of Gershwin seemed the safest one to choose from the season as we knew some of the more celebrated tunes. Mind you it kicks off with its biggest hit “Summertime”, not that Gershwin could not have known that when he wrote it.

Bess (Laquita Mitchell) is listed in the brochure in a rather old school way as “Crown’s girl”. Crown (Donovan Singletary) being “a loudmouth stevedore” and general ne’er-do-well who who treats his woman “bad” until Porgy (Musa Ngqungwana), a crippled beggar, steps in to offer protection and more than a shoulder to cry on. Is Porgy’s punching above his weight or is he perfectly happy with his lot? We offer you the classic “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin” as evidence.  Bess is what we used to call a floozy and her actions left us scratching out heads somewhat at the end. We should also draw attention to another of Bess’ potential paramours, Sportin’ Life (Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi), “a no-good drug dealer”, who keeps himself in gaudy check suits by trading the kind of “happy dust” that might just put a smile on Michael Gove’s face.

We managed to keep up with much of the goings on in Catfish Row by resorting to the surtitles which are used on and off during the performance. But rather strangely not at the moments we needed them most. There’s a debate about whether it’s a musical or an opera. We’d like to say (as we struggled to understand some of the lyrics) it must definitely be an opera. Then again it might just be All My Sons.

It’s monstrously extravagant. How the economics of it work is beyond us. There’s a cast of 30 plus the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow (married to Grange patron Joanna Lumley) And during the bits we liked it all sounded beautifully sung and occasionally glorious to our un-operatically-trained ears. But as a story it’s rather all over the place and is comfortably sprinkled with longueurs.

Grange Park Opera usually offers a popular choice among each of its very short seasons. Previous years have seen the shows with “O”s and exclamation marks, Oklahoma! and Oliver! Next year it’s Meet Me in St Louis. We might easily be tempted back. But this time with a candelabra.

*Footnote George Gershwin died of brain tumour at just 38. Brother Ira died in 1983 aged 86 sitting up in his bed eating chocolates.




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