Showing posts with label Keith Warner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Keith Warner. Show all posts

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pride and prejudices: Tchaikowsky's The Merchant of Venice, WNO, ROH


'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...' Antonio goes to the shrink.
All photos by Johan Persson, courtesy of WNO

When I was 14 I went to a piano recital I've never forgotten. It was by a Polish pianist who had escaped the Soviet bloc and settled in Oxfordshire. He was a friend of my piano teacher, who said I simply had to go and hear this astonishing musician. A gentle figure, bearded and sympathetic, he played with a soft, persuasive tone, filled above all with love for the music, especially Chopin - I can still hear its atmosphere now. We went backstage, shook his hand, thanked him; he was kind to the music-mad schoolgirl I was at the time. About two years later he died of cancer, aged only 42. His name was André Tchaikowsky.



Unknown to me at the time, Tchaikowsky (or Czajkowski, assumed instead of his real name, which was Krauthammer) was a composer as well. His magnum opus, a piece that obsessed him for the last 25 years or so of his life, was an opera based on The Merchant of Venice. Having endured a traumatic wartime childhood that entailed escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and more (Anastasia Belina-Johnson's hair-raising account of his story in the opera programme is well worth a read if you can get hold of it - see also the trailer for the documentary above), Tchaikowsky had more than a vested interest in Shakespeare's story of prejudice and revenge on the Rialto.

The opera was almost finished at the time he died, but had been rejected - to his immense disappointment - by ENO. It was one of the team for whom he had played it, director David Pountney, who homed in on it a few years back and finally put on the world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in 2013; he then programmed it also at Welsh National Opera. The other day, WNO brought it to the Royal Opera House for a London premiere and last night I went to see it.

Lester Lynch as Shylock
The reality is that it's a mixed bag. It contains seriously strong moments. It also possibly needed more editing (I suspect one could lose at least 15 minutes without damaging the fabric) - and a more straightforward staging than Keith Warner presents, a little truer to the spirit of the original Shakespeare, perhaps would not hurt it either. The best music and drama emerges after the interval in the courtroom scene, when Shylock and Portia's speeches provide the opportunity for some heartfelt, probing exploration and genuinely emotional expression - which culminates in Portia's demolition of Shylock. He eventually collapses to lie insensible at the front of the stage; and the anguished orchestral interlude which follows seemed to enter more deeply into his state of mind than most of the word setting in the rest.

The overarching musical style is of its time, with very busy orchestral writing mostly in atonal, bubbling, chattering, occasionally bumbling strands that make life interesting in the wind section, but rarely, in the first half, settle into anything clearly shaped. The coalescence and concentration of the string writing after the interval helps to lift act 3 to another level - and the orchestra was in splendid form, cogently conducted by Lionel Friend.

A strong cast delivered the piece with enormous commitment and often relish. Lester Lynch's warm and eloquent baritone was a fine fit for Shylock and the soprano Sarah Castle made much of Portia as an imperious, exceptionally cruel character, precise in tone and able to cut splendidly across the sometimes frenetic orchestra. Mark Le Brocq was outstanding as Bassanio, but his friend Antonio, in the person of the counter-tenor Martin Wölfel, had a more challenging time with a role that does not sound sympathetically written for its voice type. Lauren Michelle and Bruce Sledge did all they could with the ungrateful roles of the ungrateful Jessica [not really my namesake - JD] and the more than vaguely unpleasant Lorenzo: plenty of hard-driven singing, but little character development.

Keith Warner's production accentuates the fact that the play is about prejudice on every level: the anti-Semitism that has followed Shylock all his life and drives him to seek an unconscionable revenge; the failure of anybody to recognise in the accomplished "doctor of law" the figure of Portia, an actual woman (plus Nerissa as her clerk); and the racial digs at Portia's unfortunate first two suitors, with whom Warner seeks temporarily to lighten the mood in the Belmont maze, if with a bit of a sledgehammer.

Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassanio)
Tchaikowsky has homed in, furthermore, on a gay understrand between Antonio and Bassanio. Warner amplifies this by hinting at a parallel scenario for Portia and Nerissa, but also confuses things by introducing some rambunctious humping for Portia and Bassanio almost the moment he has picked the lead casket - something not only out of character for them in the play but also for the opera, which is costumed and set (with designs by Ashley Martin-Davis) in the fin-de-siècle era. That setting extends to opening and closing tableaux in which Antonio is on a couch talking to Dr Freud. The issue of racial prejudice is taken even further by having the Jewish characters portrayed by black singers.

It's tempting to feel that Warner has used that sledgehammer a bit too often to crack this complex walnut of a work. But there is good sense as well. Although it is the anti-Semitic victimisation of Shylock that emerges as agonising front-runner in this battle of the prejudices, Tchaikowsky and Warner alike wisely avoid adding or subtracting from Shakespeare's approach to it. Hideousness is present on both sides; judgment is not passed. These attacks each feed the other's poison. This is how it is. And was. And probably ever shall be.

So - it's not perfect. It's true, at heart, to the play and its complexities. It's also a lifetime's work that needed its creator's existence not to be cut short in the process. But it's good, extremely good, to have it on the stage at all. Plaudits to all who have made it live at last.


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Friday, October 05, 2012

A last-minute trip to Valhalla

Where do you sit for Die Walküre? In the Gods, of course. And the single best thing about going to Wagner? No queue in the Ladies' Room. Though apparently there was a massive queue in the Gents. Now they know what it's like for us at almost everything else.

I managed, with the help of an eagle-eyed and quick-moused pal, to get a last-minute return for the Wagner at Covent Garden last night. Amid all our yadda yesterday about dressing-down, seat prices et al, I can report that a) the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House was very dressed-down indeed - Wagner is a long haul flight and you need to go for comfort rather than style; b) the rest of the audience didn't look excessively flash either; and c) you can see nearly six hours of opera with a world-beating cast like this one, a clear view of the complete stage and an excellent take on the house acoustic, for £61. I don't think that is overpriced, under the circumstances. Most people I spoke to had booked a year in advance. Everyone up there was a total Wagner nut, and the hush and stillness through the performance was something to marvel at.

Highlights of the evening appeared in unusual places. First of all, Sarah Connolly's Fricka: a nuanced, heart-rending, ruby-toned performance, exceptionally sophisticated and classy. Another call for someone, please, to award a recording contract, scandalously absent at present. Come on, people - Connolly is a national treasure. She's on disc. But not enough.  

This, too, was the production's one real masterstroke: the tortured relationship between her and Bryn Terfel's Wotan is the heart of the story. Often Fricka is portrayed as little more than a backroom bully, a fundamental ideologist forcing Wotan's hand over a point of malign principle (it's a common enough problem) and you always wonder why he's weak enough to cave in (a common enough problem too). Here, though, there is still a great love between this long-married couple, on both sides. Connolly made you feel every twist of Fricka's shredded heart as the faithless Wotan cradles her with tremendous tenderness. Wotan lets her win because his love for her ultimately overrides his other amours. It makes sense out of the whole story.

It was more or less the only sense we got out of Keith Warner's production, which I have not attended before. It's cluttered, fussy and occasionally worrying: there's a distinct tendency for characters to trip over the red rope that is doing goodness knows what across the stage, and over the metal thingummyjig that rears up in the middle of the set, and then there's the ladder, from which Susan Bullock apparently had to be unhooked by a stage-hand on the first night - and will something elsewhere in the cycle make sense of the three-pronged fan under which Brunnhilde falls asleep? What's it for - repelling mosquitoes? On the top of a mountain? Most of the action appears to take place in a disused storeroom or perhaps a very messy study (a bit like mine) with a black office table, a leather chaise-longue and a huge heap of discarded books. I was constantly alarmed in case someone decided to do a Nazi-reference thing by setting light to it, though fortunately they didn't. If you're going to offer a concept Walküre, then clarity of that concept helps. This one, if it exists, eludes me. And according to Fiona Maddocks, the production has actually been streamlined since last time. 

The other unforgettable performance was Sir John Tomlinson's Hunding, who could dominate the stage with his first swing of the axe and the auditorium with his first note and all thereafter. A marvellous moment when he and Terfel's Wotan come face to face - these two legends together are not something you see every day. Marvels too from Terfel himself, of course, a Wotan incarnate; and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, creamy-toned, all-giving and ultimately transcendental as she blesses Brunnhilde. As the latter, a feisty Susan Bullock, tiny and ferocious. Simon O'Neill as Siegmund started strong, but threatened to fade out as Act 1 wrestled him and nearly won. Luxury singing from the Valkyrie gang and, below, Tony Pappano presided over a rich-toned and rhapsodic orchestra augmented by six harps plucking away in the stalls circle. 

At the risk of sounding heretical, though, I'm not convinced Wagner is Pappano's finest six hours. He has become incomparable in Italian repertoire - Il Trittico a year ago was one of the greatest evenings I've ever had in the ROH, and I mean it. But this was rather gentle Wagner: an interpretation that roused and glowed but didn't transfigure. It needs an extra hard-edge of ecstasy that simply wasn't there, despite the glories of the singing. 

Let's face it: we go to Wagner to get high. That's why people get addicted. And if you don't get the high, something isn't quite working. And the place it needs to be generated is in the pit. It's legal. But it shouldn't necessarily sound it.