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<em>The Merchant of Venice</em>, WNO at the Royal Opera House
21 Jul 2017

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

The Merchant of Venice, WNO at the Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Lester Lynch (Shylock)

Photo credit: Johan Persson

 

Polish pianist and composer André Tchaikowsky, born in November 1935, had experienced the ghettos of Warsaw as a child; he was also a homosexual. One imagines that the discriminatory divisions and brutal biases of The Merchant of Venice struck a personal chord; that, paradoxically, he empathised with both the experience of the despised Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and with the latter’s nemesis, the refined Venetian, Antonio, whose melancholy has oft been accredited to his frustrated homosexual love for Bassanio - a love which other Venetians in the play mock: ‘You look not well, signor Antonio’, smirks the garrulous Gratiano.

Martin Wolfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassiano)- WNO's the Merchant of Venice- photo credit Johan Persson- 262.jpg Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassiano). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Tchaikowsky’s opera was completed in 1978. He offered it to ENO, when the company was under Lord Harewood’s directorship and David Pountney was artistic director, but in 1982 it was rejected and Tchaikowsky, seriously ill with cancer, died shortly afterwards at the age of 46. It remained unperformed until Pountney, by then artistic director of the Bregenz Festival in Austria, commissioned performances, directed by Keith Warner, for the 2013 festival. WNO’s performances of this production in Cardiff in September last year brought the opera to the UK for the first time.

In Shakespeare’s day, Venice was considered an eclectic model of democratic republicanism, international trade, maritime prowess, Renaissance art and, as in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, corruption and vice. But, Shakespeare largely ignores these stereotypes and focuses on the city’s cultural divisions and conflicts (a pattern repeated in Othello). The ‘City of Love’, he suggests, is intoxicated by hatred.

Merchant of Venice cast- photo credit Johan Persson- 895.jpg WNO cast. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Keith Warner’s production emphasises not just the prevailing persecution and prejudice but also the motives which fuel them: in this case, mercantile ruthlessness and envy. Ashley Martin-Davis’ handsome designs take us to the underbelly of Venice’s leisured glamour: its bank vaults. There are none of the magnificent ‘argosies with portly sail’ - emblems of the trading wealth that paid for the city’s opulent piazzas, buildings and art - that dominate the conversation at the start of Shakespeare’s play. Venice’s commerce depended upon the finance made available by Jewish usurers, and so the Jews were ‘tolerated’ not out of humanitarianism but because of mercantile necessity.

Warner and Martin-Davis take us directly into the city’s counting houses: sturdy strong-boxes form the very fabric of Shylock’s house. The set’s mobile walls rotate slickly, spinning us through a world of ceaseless commercial transaction. The action is updated to the Edwardian era - a period during which the cosmopolitan Jewish elite, from the highest echelons of the likes of the Rothschilds to the middle-class financiers, seemed largely integrated into London society, until the start of WW1 released previously repressed hostility. Warner and Martin-Davis thus ignore the gondoliers and visual riches of the Rialto, just as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice ignores the local colour and opulence, to focus on the Venetians’ self-justifying persecution of the stereotyped ‘alien’.

John O’Brien’s libretto largely follows Shakespeare’s plot and imports much text - too much? - verbatim. There are some unexpected omissions, though. The absence of Bassanio’s description of Portia - ‘a lady richly left;/ And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,/ Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes/ I did receive fair speechless messages’ - with its alliterative dreaminess, deprives the spendthrift’s request for a loan of its romantic validation: after all, he is asking his homosexual admirer for money that the latter does not have so that he can pursue his female beloved. Then, when Shylock commands Jessica to lock the doors of his house in his absence, the usurer’s detestation of music - of the ‘vile squealing pf the wry-necked fife’, the ‘shallow foppery’ that shall not enter his ‘sober house’ - is excised; it seems strange to omit an opportunity to exploit the text for characterisation, given the operatic context - after all, Shakespeare’s villains are never lovers of music. But, then, I suppose something has to go.

Tchaikowsky employs a lyrical vocal idiom which often has much grace - as in Portia’s ‘quality of mercy’ monologue - and rhetorical impact, as in Shylock’s vociferous self-vindication, ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?’, which is moved, with dramatic effectiveness, from the Act 3 street scene in which Shylock spits his exculpation at Solanio and Salarino to the court-room denouement, where his audience is the Venetian state itself. But, the arioso lines often drift and overall the opera feels too wordy. One wishes that O’Brien had been more adventurous, re-ordering and revising in order to create ‘anew’, in the manner of a Boito, as there is a danger that the music becomes simply illustration - an enabling medium for the presentation of the play, rather than a work in its own right. Even Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream - which was similarly faithful to the original, adding just one line of ‘explanatory’ text (‘compelling thee to marry with Demetrius’) and in which the lovers’ music can suffer from the same plaint - has the unsettling eeriness of Oberon’s countertenor magic, the elevation of ‘Bottom’s Dream’ and, not least, the wonders of Britten’s score to suggest new meanings.

Musically, here, there is a predominant debt to Berg and, while not particularly memorable, the score serves the tenser dramatic moments adequately. However, the languorous lyricism of Belmont evades Tchaikowsky. Both Lorenzo’s final-act eulogy to music and the entire second Act - which feels like an extended scherzo, in which the divertissements are supplemented by an on-stage (here, side-box) Renaissance consort of two recorders, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, two bassoons, lute, tabor and harpsichord - lack the requisite ‘poetry’.

Wade Lewin (Prince of Morocco)- WNO's the Merchant of Venice- photo credit Johan Persson- 1526.jpg Wade Lewin (Prince of Morocco). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Warner offers a contrast to the dark Venetian drama of the opening act and stages the Act 2 Belmont scenes within a box-hedge maze, a bird’s-eye view of which is artfully relayed on a video back-drop. The easy luxury, sense of sexual freedom (at one point Portia pins Nerissa down in what seems a lesbian embrace), frequent interpolation of musical allusion and set-piece (‘Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred?’ is delivered by a Dietrich-style diva in white top hat and tails) and the maze itself, put me in mind of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing. But, the flippancy feels excessive: the caskets are held in three cumbersome safes, reminding us of the ugly, mercenary motivation behind the suitors’ quests, but the riddle scenes are hyperbolic - the gun-toting Moroccan prince leaps acrobatically and resorts to an outsize detonator to gain entry into the gold casket - and disproportionate, disrupting the dramatic flow.

Lionel Friend conducts with attentiveness to the details of the score - the orchestra is large - and does a good job at keeping stage and pit in balance and coordination. The instrumental interlude following the court-room scene was beautifully played, a poignant representation of Shylock’s defeat and, Warner suggests, death: for Shylock seems to succumb fatally to his shame and humiliation, his ghost rising during the moonlit meeting of Lorenzo and Jessica, to haunt his daughter’s betrothment and betrayal.

African American baritone Lester Lynch is cast as Shylock, his race adding to the alienation signalled by his gabardine and skull-cap amid the prevailing Edwardian urbanity. Lynch’s voice glows with pride and hatred, while the contortions of the tuba, bass clarinet and counter-bassoon convey his self-destructive bitterness. There seems little to redeem him: in the trial scene, he pulls on his rubber gloves like an amateur surgeon, eager for his ‘pound of flesh’, deaf to the warnings of the Duke of Venice - nobly sung by Miklós Sebestyén - that ‘victory’ will bring Shylock only vilification.

Lauren Michelle’s Jessica may toss her father’s treasure chests through the casements with overly enthusiastic gusto into the sheets held below by Lorenzo’s Christian friends, but she must fight her own battles to overcome prejudice. Michelle coped well with the high melismatic lines which, crystalline, rose above the scornful reception she meets at Belmont and deepened our sympathy still further.

Sarah Castle was superb as Portia. Her strong diction allowed Portia’s words to penetrate to the back of the stalls, giving the feisty proto-feminist further stature, while her phrasing was stylish. Its elegance was equalled by Mark Le Brocq whose high-lying lines conveyed all of Bassanio’s levity and heedlessness. Verena Gunz’s animated Nerissa and David Stout’s tactless Gratiano made a well-matched pair. Only Martin Wölffel disappointed: Tchaikowsky’s decision to cast Antonio as a counter-tenor (presumably to emphasise his homosexuality - Antonio surprises Bassanio with an impetuous kiss when the latter embarks for Belmont to woo Portia) may be questionable, but by any measure Wölffel lacked power and definition, and the English text was indistinguishable.

Verena Gunz (Nerissa), David Stout (Gratiano), Bruce Sledge (Lorenzo) and Sarah Castle (Portia)- WNI's the Merchant of Venice- p.jpg Verena Gunz (Nerissa), David Stout (Gratiano), Bruce Sledge (Lorenzo) and Sarah Castle (Portia). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Warner’s production opens and closes with an image of Antonio on the psychiatrist’s couch. The final gesture - Antonio hurls an object at Shylock’s ghost, silhouetted against the moon - is presumably designed to suggest that the therapy isn’t working, unable to overcome the depth and perpetuation of hatred, but if so it seems redundant. More importantly, it subverts or at least alters the balance of the ending of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, in which love and loyalty defeat malice and cruelty. That said, Warner does consistently emphasise the darker aspects of Shakespeare’s tale and at the close of this production the scales of justice are still crookedly weighted with intolerance and bigotry.

Claire Seymour

André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice
Co-production of the Bregenzer Festspiele, Austria, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music programme & Teatr Wielki, Warsaw/

Shylock - Lester Lynch, Antonio - Martin Wölfel, Lorenzo - Bruce Sledge, The Duke of Venice - Miklós Sebestyén, Bassanio - Mark Le Brocq, Solanio - Gary Griffiths, Salerio - Simon Thorpe, Gratiano - David Stout, Jessica - Lauren Michelle, Portia - Sarah Castle, Nerissa - Verena Gunz, Prince of Aragon/Freud - Juliusz Kubiak, Prince of Morocco - Wade Lewin, A Boy - Fiona Harrison-Wolfe, Woman one - Amanda Baldwin, Woman two - Helen Jarmany; Director - Keith Warner, Conductor - Lionel Friend, Designer - Ashley Martin-Davis, Original Lighting Designer - Davy Cunningham (realised by Ian Jones), Movement Director - Michael Barry, Associate Director - Amy Lane, WNO Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master - Robert Pagett).

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 19th July 2017.

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