|'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...' Antonio goes to the shrink.|
All photos by Johan Persson, courtesy of WNO
When I was 14 I went to a piano recital I've never forgotten. It was by a Polish pianist who had escaped the Soviet bloc and settled in Oxfordshire. He was a friend of my piano teacher, who said I simply had to go and hear this astonishing musician. A gentle figure, bearded and sympathetic, he played with a soft, persuasive tone, filled above all with love for the music, especially Chopin - I can still hear its atmosphere now. We went backstage, shook his hand, thanked him; he was kind to the music-mad schoolgirl I was at the time. About two years later he died of cancer, aged only 42. His name was André Tchaikowsky.
Unknown to me at the time, Tchaikowsky (or Czajkowski, assumed instead of his real name, which was Krauthammer) was a composer as well. His magnum opus, a piece that obsessed him for the last 25 years or so of his life, was an opera based on The Merchant of Venice. Having endured a traumatic wartime childhood that entailed escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and more (Anastasia Belina-Johnson's hair-raising account of his story in the opera programme is well worth a read if you can get hold of it - see also the trailer for the documentary above), Tchaikowsky had more than a vested interest in Shakespeare's story of prejudice and revenge on the Rialto.
The opera was almost finished at the time he died, but had been rejected - to his immense disappointment - by ENO. It was one of the team for whom he had played it, director David Pountney, who homed in on it a few years back and finally put on the world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in 2013; he then programmed it also at Welsh National Opera. The other day, WNO brought it to the Royal Opera House for a London premiere and last night I went to see it.
|Lester Lynch as Shylock|
The overarching musical style is of its time, with very busy orchestral writing mostly in atonal, bubbling, chattering, occasionally bumbling strands that make life interesting in the wind section, but rarely, in the first half, settle into anything clearly shaped. The coalescence and concentration of the string writing after the interval helps to lift act 3 to another level - and the orchestra was in splendid form, cogently conducted by Lionel Friend.
A strong cast delivered the piece with enormous commitment and often relish. Lester Lynch's warm and eloquent baritone was a fine fit for Shylock and the soprano Sarah Castle made much of Portia as an imperious, exceptionally cruel character, precise in tone and able to cut splendidly across the sometimes frenetic orchestra. Mark Le Brocq was outstanding as Bassanio, but his friend Antonio, in the person of the counter-tenor Martin Wölfel, had a more challenging time with a role that does not sound sympathetically written for its voice type. Lauren Michelle and Bruce Sledge did all they could with the ungrateful roles of the ungrateful Jessica [not really my namesake - JD] and the more than vaguely unpleasant Lorenzo: plenty of hard-driven singing, but little character development.
Keith Warner's production accentuates the fact that the play is about prejudice on every level: the anti-Semitism that has followed Shylock all his life and drives him to seek an unconscionable revenge; the failure of anybody to recognise in the accomplished "doctor of law" the figure of Portia, an actual woman (plus Nerissa as her clerk); and the racial digs at Portia's unfortunate first two suitors, with whom Warner seeks temporarily to lighten the mood in the Belmont maze, if with a bit of a sledgehammer.
|Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassanio)|
It's tempting to feel that Warner has used that sledgehammer a bit too often to crack this complex walnut of a work. But there is good sense as well. Although it is the anti-Semitic victimisation of Shylock that emerges as agonising front-runner in this battle of the prejudices, Tchaikowsky and Warner alike wisely avoid adding or subtracting from Shakespeare's approach to it. Hideousness is present on both sides; judgment is not passed. These attacks each feed the other's poison. This is how it is. And was. And probably ever shall be.
So - it's not perfect. It's true, at heart, to the play and its complexities. It's also a lifetime's work that needed its creator's existence not to be cut short in the process. But it's good, extremely good, to have it on the stage at all. Plaudits to all who have made it live at last.
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