A TCHAIKOVSKY The Merchant of Venice
It is a minor miracle that a score so well paced and characterised, so well written for its many voices, should be the first (and only) opera of the Polish-born composer/pianist who died in his adopted home of Britain in 1982 aged 46. Tchaikowsky was a virtuoso pianist, a sometime protégé of Stefan Askenase and Rubinstein, but a composer at heart with a flush of not over-performed works for orchestra and string quartet. Informed championship from Hans Keller was not enough in 1981 to persuade ENO to undertake the score although a member of their audition panel then, David Pountney, has mounted its belated premiere at his Bregenz Festival, hailing the work as ‘the most important operatic interpretation of Shakespeare since the 19th century’.
More than just The Merchant of Venice’s title and setting remind one that Britten’s final Thomas Mann opera was an exact contemporary. Tchaikowsky’s decidedly post-Romantic 20th-century score has clearly heard and absorbed the form and lyricism of a Britten influenced by Berg without being derivative of either. He proves as able a musical narrator as these two forerunners, moving along in gripping fashion a story which, with its pairs of characters, disguises and debates on love, turns out not unlike a darker Così fan tutte. (John O’Brien’s libretto is faithful to the play’s main intrigues while omitting its groundling comedy.) He also commands a musical palette wide enough to put dramatic space around Portia’s ‘The quality of mercy’ soliloquy and encompass a vaudeville-style handling of the ensemble passages in the street outside Shylock’s house or during the choosing of the caskets scene.
The production and its realisation here are extremely happy events. Scenes come and go swiftly in between mobile trucks and walls – the bricks of Shylock’s house are numbered bank strongboxes. Costumes are Edwardian – period enough to be historical in feel yet modern in movement and, aptly, the high noon of great Jewish international financiers. Cunning casting mixes German-speaking artists with excellent English – the feisty Portia/Nerissa team, Adrian Eröd’s beautifully balanced Shylock – and the more expected Brits and Americans as whom one used to call the gay young youth of Venice. Keith Warner handles all this onstage with a deft mix of the light (Gratiano dim and keen, Salerio and Solanio roving journalists) and the serious (Antonio’s evident attraction to Bassanio and sadness at not being able to share the others’ marital heterosexual bliss). There is real menace in the courtroom scene, presided over by the late Richard Angas’s nicely equivocal Duke, when the obsession of Eröd’s Shylock with his ‘bond’ wipes out the wit he showed earlier in the Rialto stock exchange scene and calls forth real sternness from Magdalena Anna Hofmann’s Portia.
Playing, conducting and filming serve piece and production well; hugely recommended, and an event to which you may be tempted to return often.