Friday, 21 July 2017

Neglected drama: André Tchaikowsky's The Merchant of Venice

Martin Wölfel, Mark Le Brocq - André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
Martin Wölfel, Mark Le Brocq - André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
André Tchaikowsky The Merchant of Venice; Martin Wölfel, Lester Lynch, Sarah Castle, Mark Le Brocq, Verena Gunz, David Stout, Lauren Michelle, Bruce Sledge, dir: Keith Warner, cond: Lionel Friend; Welsh National Opera at the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

The complex, dramatic and large-scale, Polish/British composer André Tchaikovsky's magnum opus in its first London performances

Welsh National Opera (WNO) brought its production of André Tchaikowsky's The Merchant of Venice to Covent Garden (we caught the second of two performances, 20 July 2017) with Lionel Friend conducting the WNO Orchestra, and the production directed by Keith Warner with designs by Ashley Martin-Davis. Antonio was Martin Wölfel, Mark Le Brocq was Basanio, David Stout as Gratiano, Lester Lynch was Shylock, Bruce Sledge was Lorenzo, Sarah Castle was Portia and Verena Gunz was Nerissa. The production was first given in Bregenz in 2013, and WNO presented it in Autumn 2016 as part of its Shakespeare 400 celebrations.


André Tchaikowsky (1935-1982) was a Polish pianist and composer who, after a harrowing childhood in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during the war (his mother was interned and murdered in Treblinka), Tchaikovsky studied in both Paris and Warsaw, developing a career as a concert pianist and composer though composition was something of a holiday activity. His output was small and his opera The Merchant of Venice is very much his magnum opus. Tchaikowsky left Poland and settled in the UK, and the opera is written to an English libretto by John O'Brien.

Despite some interest from English National Opera, the piece was never performed during Tchaikowsky's lifetime. It very much joins the works by other emigre composers such as Karl Rankl's Deirdre of the Sorrows, and Berthold Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci, which failed to find favour in the UK, though one would have anticipated that 1980s London might have been a bit more sympathetic to Tchaikowsky's style.

Verena Gunz, David Stout, Mark Le Brocq, Sarah Castle - André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
Verena Gunz, David Stout, Mark Le Brocq, Sarah Castle - André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
The opera is a large scale piece, three acts and an epilogue lasting three hours, including interval, and written for a huge orchestra including triple woodwind plus basset horn, seven percussion players and timpani, and an off-stage banda.Tchaikowsky's writing is very orchestral, not only in the way he uses substantial interludes, but the vocal lines are very much part of the orchestral texture. On first hearing it was not so much motifs and melodies which stuck in the mind as colours and textures. This is very advanced writing and all the vocal parts were complex and challenging, this was a large piece with lots of tricky notes and it received a superb performance.


Act One in Venice was all darkness, with Keith Warner's restless production mirroring the music, the set constantly in motion. John O'Brien's libretto seemed to include as much as possible and the result seemed at times a little too wordy, too full of incident. It did not help that Warner's production and Ashley Martin-Davis's designs set the work in the early 20th century with all the men almost interchangeable in their dark suits. Who were all these people popping up? The text seemed relatively unfiltered, so that with some phrases we needed to consider the surtitles before fully comprehending what Shakespeare intended; not ideal in an opera.

Two characters really stood out. The depressive, homosexual Antonio (very much the composer's self portrait), sung by counter-tenor Martin Wölfel and given some of the opera's most lyrical music, and the Jewish money lender Shylock, given a remarkable, intense performance by Lester Lynch (who is black, which added interesting layers to the opera's exploration of prejudice). Belmont in Act Two was lighter, but rather than warm lyricism we seemed to get comedy.

Despite its dark subject matter, The Merchant of Venice has some of Shakespeare's most warmly lyrical verse, yet Tchaikowsky's setting seemed to be determinedly anti-lyrical. There was some ebb and flow to his word setting, but again and again I found the word setting a bit knotted  and overall he seemed to treat the voices as instruments. You kept coming back to other operas written in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, notably Britten's late masterpieces and Tippett's operas, where complexity is combined with a lyricism and a feeling for the voice. Tchaikovsky's certainly didn't do ear-worms, but nor did he do expressionist motifs which might help inform the listener.

André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
The trial scene formed the powerful climax of the opera, and it was here that Tchaikowsky's style seemed to pay off with the stark intensity of the piece. Lester Lynch's performance here was towering, matched by that of Sarah Castle as Portia who transformed from the brittle society heiress in Act Two to a fearsome legal eagle. Yet here, as throughout the piece, Warner's production also brought out the prejudice which informed everyone's attitudes, even to Castle's Portia shying away from a proper greeting to Jessica (Lauren Michelle), Shylock's daughter, in Act Two.

The Epilogue was something of an anticlimax, Tchaikowsky rather dallied too long in the love music without quite ravishing the ear, and we had far too much of Portia and Nerissa's games with the rings. This swift verbal word-play was not Tchaikovsky's forte and it seemed clunky, particularly after the powerful trial scene.

Lester Lynch - André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
Lester Lynch - André Tchaikowsky: The Merchant of Venice - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
Mark Le Brocq did wonders with the high-wire tenor writing of the role of Bassanio, but the opera never really got us close to Bassanio the man, whilst David Stout made light of the difficulties of Gratiano's annoyingly lively style. The supporting roles were all strong, Salerio and Solanio were turned into a double-act of paparazzi by Simon Thorpe and Gary Griffiths.

I am pleased to have heard the piece, and the performance as a whole was outstanding with Lionel Friend and the WNO Orchestra conjuring wonderful textures from the complexity of Tchaikowsky's orchestral writing. All the vocal performances were similarly outstanding, making light of this tricky and taxing music.

Quite whether the opera will be more generally taken up, I am not sure. I can't help feeling that a slightly less reverential treatment of Tchaikowsky's score might help, and that it could be very helpfully trimmed.

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