From the play by: William Shakespeare
Composer: André Tchaikovsky
Librettist: John O’Brien
Director: Keith Warner
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
The long-awaited UK premiere of the operatic version of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice opens up again the question of whether or not the immortal words of the Bard are given added glory or not when set to a musical score. Welsh National Opera, in the hands of David Pountney, takes up the cudgels in this co-production with the Austrian Bregenzer Festspiele, whose artistic director he was at that time.
Andre Tchaikovsky’s complex score, while laudable on its own, detracts rather than emboldens this deeply disturbing play. John O’Brien’s English libretto makes considerable cuts in places, thus losing some of the impact of the original. This is a pity, because there is an added dimension here, in that the Jewish composer is able to relate closely to the experience of living in a ghetto, having himself endured the privations of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
For those who do not know the play: Antonio, a wealthy merchant, in Venice, is asked by Bassanio, a penniless young nobleman, to lend him money to court the beautiful Portia. Antonio’s cash is tied up in a shipment of goods on the high seas. To help his young friend, he is forced to borrow money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, for whom he has only contempt. A man dogged remorselessly by religious prejudice, at a time when anti-Semitism was rife, Shylock, who is struggling to bring up his wayward daughter, Jessica, on his own, seizes the chance for revenge. If the debt is not paid on time, he demands a terrible forfeit.
Baritone Lester Lynch gives us a full-bodied Shylock. No fawning sycophant, but a man who is conscious all the time of the insults heaped upon him, this Shylock calls forth our sympathy all the more in the light of contemporary issues. Against him, Martin Wőlfel’s Antonio is an ineffectual wimp with homosexual tendencies. Countertenor Wőlfel plays down the role to the extent of being inaudible at times in the opening scenes. Inexplicably, the role of Tubal, Shylock’s fellow Jew, is cut to ribbons.
Mark Le Brocq as Bassanio, while not entirely convincing as Portia’s lovelorn suitor, has a pleasant enough tenor, tackling with gusto the energetic love play which is a somewhat surprising feature of Act II. What Shakespeare would have made of it the sunbeds is questionable. Which bring us to Portia. Sarah Castle, as Portia, settles into the role as the opera progresses. This Portia is girlish, yet stately. Sadly, the iconic speech disappoints in this production, although Castle does her best.
‘The quality of mercy is not strained’ loses some of its impact in that libretto and score contest rather than complement. Verena Gunz sparkles as Portia’s companion, Nerissa. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, sung by Lauren Michelle, is a modern madcap. Michelle’s singing is lyrical and sweet in the duet with her lover Lorenzo (Bruce Sledge), in the final act.
The minimalist setting, brought over from the Bregenz Festival who gave the opera its world premiere three years ago, loses the atmosphere of Venice completely; almost the only clue is the berobed appearance of the judge, in the guise of the Duke of Venice, in the courtroom scene. The same could be said of the costumes, also from Bregenz, despite the valiant efforts to supplement these by the WNO.
Runs until 30 September 2016 then touring | Image: Johan Persson