Alas, poor André Tchaikowsky. A survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, with an assumed name that probably did his musical career as much harm as good (he was born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer), he died of cancer in 1982 shortly after his only opera, The Merchant of Venice, was rejected by ENO. He’s remembered today principally for bequeathing his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use as a prop, in which capacity he starred alongside David Tennant in Hamlet in 2008.
That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. Welsh National Opera’s programme book doesn’t credit the skull that’s removed from Portia’s casket in Keith Warner’s UK première production of The Merchant of Venice, but it’s tempting to imagine it as Tchaikowsky’s — not least because it was at that point (for me anyway) that his music really started to assert its character. The first instinct with an unfamiliar score is to play spot-the-influence, and in Act One Berg and Shostakovich jumped out amid the general mid-century modern bustle. Act Two, dealing with Portia and her suitors, is a sort of scherzo, with luminous flutes, and a bassoon squawking out sardonic quotations from Beethoven, Wagner and that other Tchaikovsky (the Russian one). Warner gave us a divertissement: a 1920s garden party under a heat haze of louche sexuality. A Marlene Dietrich figure in top hat and tails sang ‘Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred’, recorders warbled and an onstage harpsichord threw a glittering phrase to the harp in the pit.
Warner and his designer Ashley Martin-Davis set Act Two’s slightly queasy lightness against outer acts shrouded in darkness, and walled in by bank vaults. This is a Venice in which commerce is both a rampart and a trap, and Tchaikowsky emphasises the distance between Antonio and Shylock by writing them as a countertenor (an underpowered Martin Wölfel) and a baritone (Lester Lynch) respectively. It’s Tchaikowsky’s characterisation of Shylock that really makes the opera live: an almost Verdi-like portrayal of a proud man being eaten alive by hatred. Lynch’s tone glows like bronze — noble and sonorous. Hearing it curdle and break, while deep in the orchestra the tuba snarled and contrabassoon and clarinets twisted themselves into thick black knots, was appalling in the best sense.
If Shylock’s scenes show Tchaikowsky at full power, there’s clearly a lot more to explore here. There’s the suggestion that Sarah Castle’s poised, brightly-sung Portia was first aroused and then revolted by her destruction of Shylock, for example; the way Tchaikowsky points up Bassanio (Mark Le Brocq) and Antonio’s love by steering tenor and countertenor voices into the same register, and the uneasy implications of the opera’s moonlit epilogue. Warner (and Lionel Friend, conducting) have given The Merchant of Venice a near-ideal première: one that lets the work tell its story, and leaves you wanting to see it again. Astonishingly, this is WNO’s third main-stage première this year, reaffirming its reputation — under David Pountney’s leadership — as the boldest of our national opera companies.
The Royal Opera, meanwhile, has reheated Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2005 production of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Enthusiastically received when new, it hasn’t worn well, with Christian Fenouillat’s Ikea-kitsch designs now evoking the Noughties as surely and as tackily as the Big Brother house. The pastel-striped minimalist box that serves as Bartolo’s living room leaves a lot of empty space to fill: a problem when you need to generate the manic energy of a farce.
It felt like a very long evening, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. The visual gags mostly landed, the orchestra under Henrik Nanasi was alternately sparky and sloppy, and the cast were likeable enough, though it’s not ideal when the most enjoyable singing comes from Basilio (Ferruccio Furlanetto). And even less so when, despite being dressed like Super Mario, Figaro fades into the background as thoroughly as Vito Priante did here. Daniela Mack, as Rosina, was a spitfire with a grand steely tone and precisely zero chemistry with Javier Camarena’s Almaviva. These young lovers barely exchanged a peck on the cheek.
Whether it was Leiser and Caurier’s notion that Almaviva should come across as a bully in the final scene (at the expense of José Fardilha’s fussy, likeable little Bartolo), or whether this was revival director Thomas Guthrie’s contribution, I couldn’t say. But it did nothing to lessen the impression of a performance spinning its wheels without generating much in the way of movement. Camarena’s tenor floats rather beautifully, but he was noticeably less polished in Rossini’s dizzier flights, and the absurdly protracted ovation he received after ‘Cessa di più resistere’ would have embarrassed even a Proms crowd. Of course, here in the glittering centre of our national operatic life, the audience sets its own standards. I heard four mobile phones go off during the performance.