30th September 2016
Wales National Opera
Co-production of the Bregenzer Festspiele, Austria, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music programme & Teatr Wielki, Warsaw.
Supported by the Getty Family as part of British Firsts.
Review by Lucy Menon @LucyMenon
Over the years I have attended many an intriguing adaptation of Shakespeare, but never as an opera. As part of the celebrations of the four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death, The Merchant of Venice forms the final part of a series of operas (also including Macbeth and Kiss Me Kate) which pay homage to the bard. With a musical score by André Tchaikowsky (1935-1982) and libretto by John O’Brien, it is hard to believe that this opera was only first performed in 2013 at the Bregenz Festival and had a UK debut at the Wales Millennium Centre this September courtesy of the Welsh National Opera.
Shakespeare’s controversial play, often held up for being anti-Semitic, becomes even more intriguing when Tchaikowsky’s own background is considered. A Jew and a homosexual, Tchaikowsky embodied attributes of both the main characters of Shylock and Antonio. Having had a traumatic childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, he was smuggled out to be raised by his grandmother and became a musical protégé. It is pertinent that the opening and closing scene has the figure of Antonio laid on a couch in the stereotypical psychoanalyst pose almost embodying the composer’s own need for therapy. This works well and sets up the exploration of why the character of Antonio is indeed “so sad”. The trial scene also becomes all the more significant in light of Tchaikowsky’s life, as it could be seen to represent the conflict the composer must have experienced himself. The homosexual content of the play is sometimes played down by productions, but the opera brings it to the foreground, allowing the exploration for the bonds of love to be demonstrated as well as the monetary bonds which bind the characters to each other.
Split into three acts, the opera managed to address a different aspect and theme in each section which served to renew an energy and driving pace for the production. Act 1 dealt with the mercantile aspects of the play; Act 2 transported the audience to the romantic green space of Belmont and Act 3 culminated in the tension of the trial scene. An epilogue also followed to focus on the multiple pairs of lovers and the resolution of the confusions that had occurred.
Antonio, on the night of this review, was played by Feargal Mostyn-Williams (Martin Wölfel had laryngitis). Mosty- Williams did a superb job of conveying a tortured soul and looking particularly pale and petrified whilst facing the potential extraction of a pound of his flesh His interaction with Bassanio (Mark Le Brocq) was entirely believable and heartfelt. The gesture of the men touching each others’ faces was repeated at several points and created an intimacy that was sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected which served to increase the intensity of emotion. The night, however, belonged to Lester Lynch who brought out the extremes of feeling in Shylock. At points contrite, at others vengeful, by the end one cannot help but experience at least the stirrings of sympathy for the Jewish moneylender when he is completely humiliated in court. Lynch manages to convey a great depth of emotion in the varying cadences of his voice and this is particularly evident in the famous “If you prick us do we not bleed” speech.
Elements of comedy are fused with the more sombre aspects of this play which allow for light relief in what could otherwise be considered quite a macabre detailing of exacting vengeance. Act 2 sees the representation of Belmont and an almost film-set quality to proceedings as Portia (Sarah Castle) enters attended by an entourage. A hedge maze is on stage and also projected onto a screen at the back and serves to put a humorous slant on the task of the suitors in choosing a cask in order to win Portia’s hand in marriage. The suitors are also outlandish in their behaviour and physical comedy ensues from leaping about to preening in mirrors which creates a more rounded production by linking visual aspects with the vocal talents of the participants.
Whilst sometimes it seemed that the music and singing were slightly discordant, the vocal talents of the individuals is not in doubt and there were indeed wonderful orchestral moments: rolling timpani coming to a crescendo with cymbals to emphasise the point at which Shylock was about to collect his pound of flesh from Antonio; deep brass over the moment that Shylock’s body lies centre stage and a more light hearted string accompaniment for the epilogue when the lovers parade under a vast projection of the moon. What was also impressive were the facial expressions and body language exhibited by each member of the cast which helped to emphasise the emotion of the piece and to reinforce the narrative.
It is such a shame that Tchaikowsky never got to see his work performed, as the English National Opera initially rejected the piece and he died only three months later. However, his spirit lingers on as he bequeathed his skull to the RSC so he has now become Yorick, ensuring that for him, in some way, the show would always go on.