Shakespeare’s Portia may be right that the quality of mercy is not strained but by curtain call the audience was showing signs of waning from the UK debut of an idiosyncratic operatic take of the Merchant of Venice.
Jewish, homosexual, World War II Warsaw ghetto survivor, composer André Tchaikowsky had his work rejected by English national Opera where David Pountney was a young director. But Pountney had been smitten and used his vehicle of the Bregenz Festival to stage the work and as the chief at WNO he has now been able to bring the show to Cardiff for its UK premiere.
Should he have? The jury is still out.
Yes, it is interesting. Musically it won’t have you whistling all the way home but it isn’t as grating as much modern opera where tunes seem to have been abandoned and atonality rules supreme.
The story is cleanly told and in this production the staging by Keith Warner starts very well indeed with the story recalibrated to a sort of Edwardian period (although the Nazi SA Brownshirts are a bit out of this context). We also have a more obvious racial element introduced with Shylock and daughter Jessica sung by black singers.
Our director has delved into all of the facets of the composer (as I listed above) making of the flesh bond being in a brokers’ hall, the walls of Shylock’s fortress home are safety deposit boxes, those Nazi SA thugs attack the Jew and the key characters emerge from safes. The pivotal trial scene is played reasonably “straight” with few gimmicks, enabling the focus to be on the sung text and the heart of the opera. Shylock’s anguish and despair is palpable.
However, the second act, in Portia’s Belmont home, the production descends into a mish-mash of Edwardian slap stick, hijinks and silliness. Similarly, when we return to our pairs of lovers back at Belmont after the trial we return to nonsense, annoying symbolism (the three elements in the safes now on their sides looking more like chest freezers – fire, water and one with a tree for earth) and plodding explanations. Designer Ashley-Martin-Davis has plenty of jolly fun with the work but maybe too much fun.
The contrast is also reflected in the change of style and even instruments for the score as we juxtapose the decadence of Belmont with the gritty, mercantile, hard-nosed Venice.
The effect is like having to operas spliced together: a serious story of revenge, racial and religious hatred, fear and bigotry etc cut into Cosi Fan Tutte with the gender roles reversed and played for laughs.
I mentioned the composer’s homosexuality intentionally because what is obviously implied there in the play is slapped in our face here like a wet fish. Subtle it ain’t. Rather nauseating, yeah. Antonio is portrayed as a sickly, depressive, love-struck fool fawning over Bassanio. Having the role written for a falsetto, here sung deftly but not particularly attractively by Martin Wölffel, doesn’t help in a rather unpleasant characterisation.
Lester Lynch and Sarah Castle in the trial scene
Lester Lynch and chorus
The star of the show is Shylock from Lester Lynch who is baritone of glorious voice and strong acting ability. Of course modern audiences feel sorry for him when the Christians get the better of him and rub salt into his wounds with enforced conversion and gloat on his downfall. However, this does not mean in this production the portrayal shies away from showing him as hate-filled and deserving of his comeuppance.
It is the drawing of these two characters that is the only really interesting thing about the opera and is stressed in this production – the way Antonio and Shylock are both outsiders, one through his sexual orientation and the other his religion. The relationship between the three pairs of lovers is rather dull apart from, perhaps, Portia’s awareness that Antonio has the hots for her hubbie.
Martin Wölffel and Mark Le Brocq
The opera doesn’t totally flip the dynamic to make Shylock’s Christian adversaries into the fiends (as is the vogue of modern times) but our sympathies are definitely towards the Jew. However, I would have thought the composer would also have wanted is to feel more sympathy for Antonio. These two men end the opera on their own as the others all pair off and yet even then he cannot stop himself lobbing something at Shylock as the curtain falls.
The whole narrative is topped and tailed with Antonio on a psychiatrist’s couch (thus the characters coming out of bank vaults which are in this context like locked chambers of the psyche) which fits in with his depressive demeanor but like other elements of this retelling of the tale and Warren’s stagecraft it is perhaps a Freudian slip too far.
Portia and Bassanio, sung by Sarah Castle and Mark Le Brocq, are one of the Venetian couples with the maid Nerissa sung by Verena Gunz and own beau Gratiano sung by David Stout. There is plenty of jollity and silliness but not any romantic or sexual chemistry between either pair. However, the pairing of Portia and Nerissa is again more interesting with another frisson of a sexual relationship.
Verena Gunz and David Stout
The duet between Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, sung by Lauren Michelle, duet with her lover Lorenzo, sung by Bruce Sledge, in the final act showed just how Shakespeare’s glorious poetry failed to translate into sung lyrics and the romantic soul of the play was lost.
Lionel Friend conducts with authority and brings great sympathy for his singers.
The show is here through the sponsorship of the Getty family and is part of the same package of funding that saw Getty’s Usher House.
WMC until 30 September, then touring
Duncan Warner talks of the problem of directing Merchant of Venice
Review of WNO’s Macbeth, “one of the silliest staged by WNO”.