André Tchaikowsky Makes an Important Contribution to Shakespearean Opera with his Merchant of Venice

20/09/2016

André Tchaikowsky, The Merchant of Venice:  (UK Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lionel Friend (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 16.9.2016. (GPu)

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Martin Wolfel (Antonio) and Lester Lynch (Shylock) in The Mechant of Venice
Photo credit Johan Persson

Cast:
Shylock: Lester Lynch
Antonio: Martin Wölfel
Portia: Sarah Castle
Bassanio: Mark Le Brocq
Jessica: Lauren Michelle
Lorenzo: Bruce Sledge
Gratiano: David Stout
Nerissa: Verena Gunz
Salerio: Simon Thorpe
Solanio: Gary Griffiths
A Boy: Fiona Harrison-Wolfe
The Duke of Venice: Miklós Sebestyén
The Prince of Aragon: Juliusz Kubiak
The Prince of Morocco: Wade Lewin
Woman 1: Amanda Baldwin
Woman 2: Helen Jarmany

Production:
Director: Keith Warner
Set and Costume Designer: Ashley Martin-Davis
Lighting Designer: Davy Cunningham
Choreographer: Michael Barry
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin

It is surely time that we paid less attention to the post-mortem fate of André Tchaikowsky’s skull, and rather more to his musical achievements, as both pianist and composer. As far as the second of these is concerned, this production of his only opera makes an excellent place to start a process of discovery or re-assessment. Compared to most Shakespearean operas, there is in this Merchant, for good (mostly) or for ill (occasionally), more of Shakespeare’s own poetry than is usual, since lots of text is carried straight across from play to opera. John O’Brien’s libretto is a masterly piece of reduction (I use the word in the sense in which we talk of a piano ‘reduction’ of an orchestral score, since this libretto is no mere impoverishment of the original), which omits material (such as the largely tedious business of the two Gobbos and Portia and Nerissa’s dismissive catalogue of suitors in Act I scene ii of the play) deemed redundant and likely to obscure what really matters in the play. The result is that we can see more clearly, such obfuscations removed, what is most important.

Fundamental to the success of the work is the clear perception, shared by librettist and composer, of the key to Shakespeare’s dramatic structure – the qualified duality of the two ‘worlds’ he creates – on the one hand, the male-dominated urban world of Venice, where the only measure of value is financial, and society is ruthlessly competitive and, on the other, the predominantly female, country-house world of Belmont, the very name of which (‘beautiful mountain’) defines it as an antithesis to the wholly unmountainous world of Venice. Belmont, which one might imagine as a Palladian villa with substantial grounds and its own band of household musicians, is a place where marriages are brought about by the conventions of folk-tale and fairy story, rather than by financial considerations.  Tchaikowsky articulates this contrast musically, the music throughout most of the scenes in Venice being edgily aggressive, with prominent writing for the brass, its harmonies at best bittersweet, while the writing for the scenes in Belmont is, for the most part, much smoother and more lyrical, strings and woodwinds, rather than brass, being foregrounded.

A lesser dramatist than Shakespeare would have posited one of these ‘worlds’ as ‘superior’ to the other, but Shakespeare refuses the possibility of any such simple choice, seeing them, rather, as interdependent, each having needs only the other can meet. Portia can only be rescued from her initial ennui and her undesirable suitors by the arrival of the Venetian Bassanio, whose presence in Belmont is crucially dependent on money acquired in Venice, via Antonio. Venice, on the other hand, needs the arrival of Portia, in male disguise significantly, to solve the problem over Antonio’s bond with Shylock. (One suspects that Belmont was itself the product of Venetian wealth). Nor are the inhabitants of these two worlds altogether different, something brought out very clearly in Keith Warner’s production. Once Portia has ‘become’ a man in Venice she is, for all her talk of mercy, as unforgivingly and cruelly antisemitic as the Venetians themselves in her treatment of Shylock, as if infected by the very air of the place. But perhaps her behavior only reveals the ‘truth’ about her, since she and Nerissa are no more willing to extend a welcome of any warmth to Jessica than the Venetians are to recognize the humanity thy share with Shylock.

In using Shakespeare’s text, or rather than a modern rewriting thereof, Tchaikowsky has set himself a problem. At his best he writes a vocal line which respects the emphases and patterns of Shakespeare’s verse and uses the orchestra to ‘colour’ the text emotionally. Sometimes, however, the music overwhelms the text and robs it of most of its verbal power.

Overall, this is a clearly and intelligently directed production which is largely well sung and played. African American baritone Lester Lynch sings Shylock with both power and subtlety and is convincingly dignified (and yet pained) in terms of actorly gesture and demeanour. The casting of Lynch as Shylock and of the African American soprano Lauren Michelle as his daughter Jessica serves, not only to add two fine artists to the cast, but also to ‘universalise’ one of the work’s main themes, so that no audience can fail to see that Shakespeare’s text has a vivid relevance to other kinds of prejudice, not only to the phenomenon of antisemitism. While Lynch gives the most compelling individual performance here, almost all of the cast acquit themselves well. Mezzo Sarah Castle, as Portia, seemed to take a little time to find her way into the role, but was more and more convincing as the performance went on, not least in the Trial scene. Verena Gunz was a pert and vivacious Nerissa, while Miklós Sebestyén was an authoritative (yet bewildered) Duke. Tenor Mark Le Brocq brought an attractively lyrical voice to the role of Bassanio, without ever quite convincing one (and perhaps he shouldn’t?) that there was much real passion in his feelings for Portia. One area of relative weakness was the Antonio of countertenor Martin Wölfel. Clearly imagined as a ‘damaged’ figure, Antonio’s unambiguous homosexual love for Bassanio made him almost as much of an ‘outsider’ as Shylock (himself both Jewish and homosexual, Tchaikowsky clearly understood both ‘situations’) and he begins and ends the production on the psychiatrist’s couch. More troubling was that there were quite a few moments, particularly in Act I, when Wölfel struggled to make himself heard above the orchestra. Since Lionel Friend’s excellent conducting (he was clearly very much on top of a complex score) was generally very considerate of the singers, it may be that Tchaikowsky, for all the stylistic variety and sophistication of his orchestral writing, wasn’t able to find (as one suspects Britten, for example, would have done) a satisfactory way of reconciling the nature and dimensions of the countertenor voice with the almost Bergian orchestral writing in the first Act.

But, such relatively minor details aside, this was a thoroughly interesting and rewarding evening. With a flexible set, well-designed by Ashley Martin-Davis and the intelligent and thoughtfully detailed direction of Keith Warner, supporting a generally strong cast, a clear and powerful case was made for Tchaikowsky’s almost forgotten work. There aren’t so many good operatic interpretations of Shakespeare that this one should be allowed to lie neglected much longer.

 Glyn Pursglove

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