The Merchant of Venice
Eröd as Tchaikowsky's Shylock at Bregenz
© Bregenzer Festspiele/Karl Forster 2013
André Tchaikowsky led a tragically brief life marked by severe mood swings and frustration over being typecast as a pianist rather than a composer. His greatest wish was to see his opera, The Merchant of Venice, staged, but he died at forty-six in 1982, leaving the final measures to be orchestrated by a colleague.
The opera was under consideration by English National Opera and, according to one of Tchaikowsky's diary entries, the Met, but it was not until Keith Warner's production at the Bregenzer Festpiele (seen July 28) that The Merchant reached the stage.
Had Tchaikowsky lived to experience the opera, one can only surmise that he would have corrected some of its weaknesses. The work is unrelentingly dark and densely orchestrated, so dominated by contrabasses and low reeds and woodwinds that voices were largely obliterated. From the sixteenth row of the two-thousand-seat Festspielhaus, I relied on German supertitles to keep up with Shakespeare's text, adapted by John O'Brien. With its many dialogues, it is essentially a chamber opera that has been massively over-orchestrated. In another diary entry, Tchaikowsky remarked of his score, "The result makes the piano score of Wozzeck seem like 'Chopsticks.'"
Therein lies another problem: the score is highly derivative, of Berg, but also of Shostakovich and Britten. Furthermore, with Tchaikowsky's only compositions for voice consisting of a handful of song settings of Shakespeare and Blake, he had not mastered the art of composing coherent vocal lines for opera. The most-anticipated speeches — Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" and Portia's "The quality of mercy" — fell flat. What should have been highlights merely melded into the rest of the piece without distinction.
O'Brian is to be faulted as well: with a running time of one-hundred-sixty-five minutes, the opera is longer than any film or television adaptation of Shakespeare's play. Far too much time is spent on subplots concerning the romances between Jessica and Lorenzo and Nerissa and Gratiano, weakening the dramatic tension.
Still, there is much to like, particularly the casting of a countertenor as Antonio and a tenor as Bassanio, who — not surprisingly, considering Tchaikowsky's openly gay lifestyle — are assigned some of the most tender moments in the opera. Antonio seems a mirror to Tchaikowsky, opening and closing the opera in states of severe depression.
Ashley Martin-Davis's luxurious Victorian-era sets and costumes offered nonstop treats for the eyes. Warner moved the action with cinematic fluency, greatly helping mask the score's deficiencies and adding humor — most notably in the pompous Prince of Aragon, and in placing Antonio on a psychoanalyst's couch, attended to by a cigar-smoking Sigmund Freud clone.
Baritone Adrian Eröd, who excels in contemporary music, worked very hard to make an impact in the monochromatic role of Shylock. Christopher Ainslie, a handsome, sympathetic Antonio, showed a voice too small for the assignment. Charles Workman coped admirably with Bassanio's high-flying vocal line. Magdalena Anna Hoffmann's Portia was a disappointment in an underdeveloped role.
The Wiener Symphoniker gave a bravura performance of an exceedingly long and difficult score, masterfully helmed by Iowa native Erik Nielsen.
LARRY L. LASH
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