Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Cooperstown and the Hood

Glimmerglass Festival continues its string of world premiere youth operas with a wholly enchanting production of Ben Moore and Kelly Rourke’s Robin Hood.

Glimmerglass Oklahoma: Yeow!

Director Molly Smith knew just how to best succeed at staging the evergreen classic Oklahoma! for Glimmerglass Festival.

La pietra del paragone in Pesaro

Impeccable casting — see photos. Three new generation Italian buffos brought startling new life to Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 2002 production of Rossini’s first major comedy (La Scala, 1812).

An Invitation to Travel: Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau at the Proms

German soprano Christiane Karg invited us to accompany her on a journey during this lunchtime chamber music Prom at Cadogan Hall as she followed the voyages of French composers in Europe and beyond, and their return home.

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the Proms - Sir Simon Rattle

Prom 46: Schoenberg's Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and Thomas Quasthoff. And three wonderful choirs - the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Orfeó Català from Barcelona, with Chorus Master Simon Halsey, Rattle's close associate for 35 years.

Le Siège de Corinthe in Pesaro

That of Rossini (in French) and that of Lord Byron (in English, Russian, Italian and Spanish), the battles of both Negroponte (1470) and of Missolonghi (1826) re-enacted amidst massive piles of plastic water bottles (thousands of them) that collapsed onto the heroine at Mahomet II's destruction of Corinth.

Dunedin Consort perform Bach's St John Passion at the Proms

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

John Joubert's Jane Eyre

Librettists have long mined the literature shelves for narratives that are ripe for musico-dramatic embodiment. On the whole, it’s the short stories and poems - The Turn of the Screw, Eugene Onegin or Death in Venice, for example - that best lend themselves to operatic adaptation.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Through Life and Love: Louise Alder sings Strauss

Soprano Louise Alder has had an eventful few months. Declared ‘Young Singer of the Year’ at the 2017 International Opera Awards in May, the following month she won the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

A Master Baritone in Recital: Sesto Bruscantini, 1981

This is the only disc ever devoted to the art of Sesto Bruscantini (1919–2003). Record collectors value his performance of major baritone roles, especially comic but also serious ones, on many complete opera recordings, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia (with Victoria de los Angeles). He continued to perform at major houses until at least 1985 and even recorded Mozart's Don Alfonso in 1991, when he was 72.

Emalie Savoy: A Portrait

Since 1952, the ARD—the organization of German radio stations—has run an annual competition for young musicians. Winners have included Jessye Norman, Maurice André, Heinz Holliger, and Mitsuko Uchida. Starting in 2015, the CD firm GENUIN has offered, as a separate award, the chance for one of the prize winners to make a CD that can serve as a kind of calling card to the larger musical and music-loving world. In 2016, the second such CD award was given to the Aris Quartett (second-prize winner in the “string quartet” category).

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

<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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):