Timothy Sheader's tenure as Artistic director in the park continues to be a great success, not least when - as in this powerful Gershwin 'folk-opera' - he directs the work himself. Above all he shows no fear of sometimes giving his festive summer audience dark, twisted and tragic themes: revelling, rather, in the way that the growing dusk beneath the looming trees intensifies the sense of menace as evening wears on. In this 1935 tale - based on a novel about poor black Americans in a shoreside village - Bess is a hot-blooded good-time girl, addicted to cocaine ("happy dust"), living with Crown the local bully under his sexual domination, until he kills a man in rage in a gambling session and flees.
The God-fearing locals at first shun Bess, except for the crippled beggar Porgy, who in some of the most heartfelt, deep, lonesome and lovely music in opera, offers her unconditional love. But she is drawn back to the alpha-male Crown and, even after his death, the insinuating drug-dealer Sporting Life; and in a tremendous operatic storm the village's disasters ripen into a vast harmonic distress.
It is extraordinarily powerful, and in its day shocking (it was the first time a full cast of operatically trained black singers was seen, and for a period years later the portrayal of violence, drugs and sexual licence even brought it accusations of racism). But it is a huge, universal story, and quite stunningly rendered here by Sheader and his musical director David Shrubsole. Wisely, they don't build a replica 1935 village but work with Katrina Lindsay's backdrop, looking like crumpled beaten copper and responding quite beautifully to changes of mood as the light glances off it: at first natural daylight, then glorious blending with the sunset, then hellishly glaring or calmly silvery, and finally a great flashing storm. Otherwise the props are bare chairs and tables, and a fine cast swarms among them: Nicola Hughes a red-hot Bess, softening with Porgy's love but battling her demons with real pathos; Sharon D. Clarke a defiant village matriarch Maria, Philip Boykin a vast and terrifying villain Crown, Cedric Neal a sinister, witty, sharp-suited dealer. And of course above all there's Porgy: Rufus Bond Jr, big and crippled, ungainly and pathetic, charming in his happiness and heroic in his love. Together, in extraordinary subtle and powerful music, they drive the tragic tale with hammer-blows of feeling. Terrific.