Last Friday (30th September 2016) I got another fix of opera in the form of a new Welsh National Opera production of The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikowsky at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay (above; the people in the bottom left of the picture were having an important discussion about the location of the nearest Fish & Chip shop).
The Opera sticks very closely to Shakespeare’s play of the same name, even to the extent that the libretto uses some of the original text verbatim. That creates the opposite problem to that which I mentioned in my review of Verdi’s Macbeth. In Verdi’s case the text was excessively abridged with many memorable passages omitted entirely, but in this case the Opera struggles to under the weight of so many words. It’#s not just that the Opera has to be rather long in order to accommodate so much of the original play, more that Shakespeare’s verse has a compelling rhythm to it that echoes but also amplifies the cadences of natural English speech. Unless it is done exceptionally well, setting the words to music actually detracts from the poetry rather than adding anything to it. Take for example, Portia’s wonderful speech in the courtroom scene (Act IV of the play; Act III of the opera):
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
These words have music to them in their own right, a music that, frankly, I preferred to what Tchaikowsky added which seemed to distort their proper metre.
I’m not saying that I didn’t like the music; the score is often highly effective. Rigorously atonal – in fact somewhat reminiscent of Alban Berg – it generates great psychological tension and carries considerable emotional force. I just think it was a mistake to take such a literal approach to Shakespeare’s text.
That said, there is a great deal to savour in this production. The staging is extremely well done, with each scene having a completely different look and feel, and the principals sang their roles extremely well. Lester Lynch was a particularly fine Shylock, managing to transcend the stereotypical aspects of his character with a performance of great nobility. The antisemitism of Shakespeare’s play is certainly present in the Opera, but casting Shylock as a black actor turns it into a more general statement about the evil of prejudice. The play only hints that the relationship between the two men Antonio and Bassanio is more than just a friendship, but the Opera clearly suggests that there is a sexual element to it. Antonio is left alone and distraught at the end, as Bassanio abandons him for Portia, but sympathy for him is limited by his awful behaviour towards Shylock. That suggests (at least to me) that the abuse Antonio directs at Shylock is born of his own internal conflict. At any rate he ends the Opera as he starts it, on a psychiatrist’s couch.
A word must be said about Antonio. The role (for a counter-tenor) was supposed to be sung by Martin Wölfel but he was indisposed by laryngitis. In stepped Feargal Mostyn-Williams at very short notice in what must be an immensely demanding role. I thought he was very good indeed. He held the stage well and though he struggled to project over the orchestra at the start (presumably due to nerves) he grew into the role very well.
This is a production that’s well worth seeing, and I enjoyed it a lot despite the difficulties I tried to explain above. Sadly there were only two performances in Cardiff, so if you want to see it you’ll have to catch it on tour or next summer when it is to be staged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.Follow @telescoper