the trial

The quality of mercy is examined before the Doge. Pictures: Johan Persson

The Merchant of Venice

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

DAVID Pountney has long had a gift for restoring to life out-of-the-way operas that have been needlessly neglected. In recent years he has given life to the Polish-Russian composer Moishe Vainberg (Mieczyslaw Weinberg), whose sense of drama and musical artistry was greatly admired by Shostakovich.

Among East European repertoire, we owe it to Pountney that Smetana’s Dalibor entered the western repertoire (at Edinburgh), and equally the same composer’s Dvě Vdovy (The Two Widows). Two operas by Martinů – Julietta and The Greek Passion - were brought by him to Opera North and ENO, and to the Royal Opera.

He has performed an invaluable service. Now hotfoot from the festival Pountney directed (till 2014) at Bregenz, comes a work that has every claim to be a masterpiece. This was a world, and now UK, premiere, and everything about it was memorable. It is by André Tchaikowsky, a Polish born composer who escaped the ghetto and spent most of his later life in England. He became an outstanding concert pianist, supported, encouraged and promoted by the great Artur Rubinstein. He was only 46 when he died, in 1982, but he left a striking albeit limited number of works behind. Of these, The Merchant of Venice is undoubtedly the most important.

Everything about this opera, and arguably about Keith Warner’s WNO production, was frankly superb. The first reason is the libretto. Despite numerous attempts to convert Shakespeare’s plays into operas, not everyone has fared well. Even Thomas Adès’ acclaimed score for The Tempest made its impantonio and portiaact from the music and characterisation (Prospero, Ariel) rather than from the truncated libretto that to som extent mangled Shakespeare’s original and sheared it of its poetic uniqueness.

But no such problems arose here. Tchaikowsky – no relation to his Russian counterpart; in fact it was a name assumed to conceal his original Jewish surname – acquired a librettist, John O’Brien, who worked wonders with Shakespeare’s play.

Martin Wolfel  as Antonio and Sarah Castle as Portia

Time and again one finds the key lines of the original used to maximum advantage: crucial lines, of Shylock, and Portia, Antonio, Bassanio and Gratiano, are brought in to give the story maximum familiarity and maximum impact. At no point does one feel any crucial bits of verse are lost. By intelligent selection, Tchaikowsky and O’Brien have packed into the opera virtually every aspect of real importance – with a sparkling text to match.

The task facing composer and librettist was not minor. The story relies on several distinct but interlocking elements: the attraction, and loyalty, of the merchant Antonio to the well-born Bassanio, conceivably reaching back to the latter’s boyhood; the fashioning of the bond with Shylock; the absconding of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, with her Christian boyfriend Lorenzo; the aspiring foreign suitors of Portia, and their hilarious comic failure; Gratiano’s falling for Portia’ maid Nerissa; the trial scene before the Doge; the posing of Portia as a ‘young lawyer’ and the financial humiliation of Shylock; the moonlit love scene of Lorenzo and Jessica; and the amusing deception of Bassanio and Gratiano thanks to the girls’ mischievous claiming of the rings they themselves gave.

What is so extraordinary is how well all of this is encompassed within the frame of the opera. The first to establish himself is Antonio, the role given to a countertenor (Martin Wölfel), whose sympathetic character was established by the softness – perhaps a little too recessive – of his tone. It is possible to believe that here is a man in love (his word), but who sacrifices himself willingly out of loyalty, and even shows tolerance and forgiveness towards Shylock (whom his young friends, if not he himself, has often mocked and derided ‘on the Rialto’.

Wölfel gives us an Antonio who is almost unbelievably passive, even as he prepares to undergo the knife; one cannot imagine him running a shipping firm that plies its way to ‘Tripoli, The Indies, Mexico and Britain’. Yet set against the rumbustiousness of his friends (Simon Thorpe’s Salerio notably impressed), he emerges with a dignity and honour that made its own kind of impression and impact. Wölfel’s voice, when you could hear it, was exquisite.

There were two Shylocks, alternating in this cast. Quentin Hayes is one of the strongest, most agile of our (still) young baritones, even though the parts he plays nowadays tend to be grey haired. He achieved something quite impressive here: his Shylock was outwardly laid-back, not snarling or aggressive. O’Brien follows Shakespeare in tacking the ugly ‘pound of flesh’ terms on almost casually at the end of the deal.

 Hayes gave us a Shylock who is patently vulnerable (‘Hath not a Jew eyes, hath not a Jew ears?’) was one of many famous lines memorably set by Tchaikowsky); and who, like Rigoletto, almost fears the growing up of his now ripe daughter. The stages by which, in the test of strength, he attempts to uphold an alternative deal (‘three times’ my capital); sneers at the cross; and finds himself deprived even of his principal, were splendidly phased. Antonio’s only act of near-cruelty is to stipulate he become a Christian.

Mark Le Brocq as Bassanio and Bruce Sledge as Lorenzo both furnished notably attractive, even golden tenor voices, both as soloists and in duet (Le Brocq with Wölfel, Sledge with Lauren Michelle’s gentle Jessica). Their actions were a little stolid – one of the very few failings in Keith Warner’s beautifully modulated, immensely inventive production, which scored on nearly every front. But in front of a full moon, the Jessica-Lorenzo closing duet allowed Tchaikowsky to insert a piece of pure lyricism into what was quite a dramatic piece of music overall.

 

Music like what? Right at the outset he embarks on a scherzo passage that has plenty in common with, say, Shostakovich at his most buoyant. At other times, he slips into a character close to many Austro-German composers of the middle century, but most notably Berg and even the richer reaches of atonal (pre-12 note) Schoenberg. Time and again his orchestration is not just engaging but apt for the moment: passages of slow cello and then oboe, or cellos and basses in the kind of inverted passage that 12-tone composers import. Eerie xylophone, of a strange, shofar- like effect reinforced by groaning trombones. Whereas the allusion to Portia invites a spread of meltingly beautiful strings, but somehow originally deployed, not obviously. One gets the feeling time and again that one is listening to a composer of the utmost ingenuity, a musician of the front rank.

One character who imprinted himself unforgettably on this production was David Stout’s Gratiano. Stout has a marvellous way of prising the most out of a comic situation, while at the same time playing it down or taking the mickey out of himself. The voice is rich and immensely rewarding – often making the most of an alluring low bass register. But when Gratiano tames himself, as in the court scene, he lends a surprising distinction by his presence (one that was shared with Miklós Sebestyén’s august though naturally flummoxed Doge). Stout was dressed much of the time in a beige or white suit – the consistency of Ashley Martin-Davis’s outfits, both for the girls and the men, helped maintain the stylistic thoroughness and concentration of Warner’s staging. Likewise his sets – including some heavy walls not unlike the funeral walls of Venice’s San Michele – served well. This opera looked all of a piece, and that helped the production excel from beginning to end.

Tchaikowsky writes expressively and with great imagination for the individual voices. Indeed Stout’s solo work more than once suggested the sinister baritone role from Britten’s Death in Venice. One instrument he gives special weight to is the clarinet (as at Shylock’s ‘for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe’). He deploys mocking low woodwind for the Jew’s malicious urging of the bond, then a soaring horn, then Berg-suggesting flute for Lorenzo (after some scintillating coloratura from Lauren Michelle’s Jessica dangling from a wall). One of the most satisfying ensembles is an all-male quartet for Lorenzo and Gratiano teamed with Solanio and Salerio; equally, some of his interludes – these play a strong role across the whole opera – are distinguished by using solo instruments, always to telling effect. ‘My daughter, my ducats’ laments Shylock, heralded by a panicky interlude; the women’s chorus did well at this point.

Given the adaptation to a more modern era – any time from 1900s to 19antonio and bassanio30s might describe it – Warner treated us to some entertaining touches from the Props department: old fashioned telephones and weighty early box cameras, or a host of umbrellas scurrying through the streets. He reserved probably the most continuous comic sequence, with tripping orchestra, for the Prince of Aragon – a hoot of a performance, riddled with sly detail, from Juliusz Kubiak, who even surfaces at the end for a final dotty farewell; while the Prince of Morocco (Wade Lewin) is given over to a fairly ludicrous dance like a bird decorating its elaborate mating call.

Martin Wolfel as Antonio and Mark Le Brocq  as Bassiano

 A cute little hedge permits characters to keep popping up and diving down in a crazy manner. It all makes for a deliciously witty contrast with the serious business of the court scene, though a yelping clarinet and serious brass bring home effectively the grim letter from Antonio, announcing the demise of all his ships and begging Le Brocq’s Bassanio to be present at the grisly end.

Tchaikowsky uses brass sparingly but ably. For instance, the tuba launches Act III, where assailed by Thorpe’s fine bass Salerio and Gary Griffiths’ Solanio (Shylock: ‘I courted Leah when a bachelor’) Quentin Hayes’s put-upon Shylock’s hints at his own personal griefs, and explains his devotion to keeping Jessica. The scene includes one of his best lines in answer to the twosome: why take a pound of flesh? ‘To bait fish withal’. Time and again, this superb libretto gives us the gems of Shakespeare’s text. The short pre-court interlude again suggests the German opera tradition – Hindemith, perhaps. A bass clarinet warbles away as Shylock is summoned; a flute backs up the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ comment. But most unnerving is the sequence, ‘And if you wrong us, shall we not have revenge?’ which is sung with devastating forcefulness a cappella (unaccompanied): an awesome passage which particularly underlines the agility of Tchaikowsky’s vocal writing.

The court scene, strongly characterised and volubly see-sawing between the two sides, is of course at its height with the appearance of Portia. The wonderful Sarah Castle gives an astonishing performance – subtly winding Shylock up, hooking him and reeling him in, to the admiration of all present. Castle’s light vocal touch – she is deemed, after all, ‘a boy’ – added hugely to the impressiveness of this scene. The undoing of Shylock is brilliantly manufactured by libretto and score alike. If any scene confirms the masterpiece that this opera is, it is of course this one. The pianissimo flute, then oboe, that accompany ‘It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven’ only underline the ongoing delicacy of Portia’s solo line. Her appearance – unrecognised - clad in black lawyer’s attire is both comic and deeply serious. Abetted by so subtle a score, Castle managed to carry off both with deftness and delightful aplomb.

So: here we have a completely unknown opera, completed by 1981, teasing out the marvellous eloquence of one of Shakespeare’s most cleverly constructed dramas. The text drawn from the Bard’s iambics is truly inspired. The music is as clever and varied and elegantly conceived as, arguably, that associated with any Shakespeare opera. And here in Keith Warner’s splendidly moved, smartly conceived, riveting production abetted by Ashley Mart-Davis’s designs and a cast able to bring a splendid intensity and captivating freshness to the multi-layered plot, we have the makings of a masterpiece. Which is just what this The Merchant of Venice is.   

Roderic Dunnett

09-11-16 

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