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ANDRÉ TCHAIKOWSKY: The Merchant of Venice

spacer Lewek, M. A. Hofmann; Ainslie, Workman, Eröd; Prague Philharmonic Choir, Vienna Symphony, Nielsen. EuroArts 2072708 (2 discs), 160 mins. (opera), 50 mins. (bonus), subtitled

MerchantDVD

The Merchant of Venice has inspired several operas, including a couple by Jewish composers — Reynaldo Hahn’s Marchand de Venise (Paris Opéra, 1935) and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Mercante di Venezia (Florence, 1961), the latter’s Portia and Shylock created by Rosanna Carteri and Renato Capecchi. This one, by Polish-born Jewish composer André Tchaikowsky (1935–82), seems too long at 160 minutes; Tchaikowsky and librettist John O’Brien fell into the same trap as Samuel Barber and Franco Zeffirelli did with Antony and Cleopatra, setting too much of the original text. Hahn’s and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s treatments met the same criticism; one must admire anew Boïto’s willingness in Otello to slash an act, subplots and relatively major characters. (The not-long life of Tchaikowsky — né Robert Andrzej Krauthammer — could furnish its own libretto, featuring the Warsaw Ghetto and Uprising, international piano competitions and severe cancer. (For more on the composer and the gestation of his posthumously produced Shakespearean opera, see A. J. Goldmann’s feature in the May 2013 issue of OPERA NEWS.) The characters Tchaikowsky created are somewhat varied as to vocal line and gesture, and the music is capably wrought and widely allusive, but there’s much arioso that leads nowhere.

Yet Keith Warner’s handsome production, filmed by Felix Breisach at the 2013 Bregenz Festival, has serious thought behind it. Ashley Martin-Davis’s Edwardian designs stress the capitalistic structures underlying the plot. Warner stages the Belmont scenes in the overly busy “grand hotel” style some U.K. directors adore; the interactions between Portia (Magdalena Anna Hofmann, prettily unimpressive) and the suitors take forever. Christopher Ainslie’s countertenor Antonio projects his words well, keeping the sound unified. He looks rather young for his part; Warner makes Antonio a full-fledged neurotic, obsessively in love with his cousin Bassanio. (The opera opens and closes with him in an analytic session.) While sending Bassanio off to win his lady Portia in Belmont, fortified with the money Shylock has lent for Antonio’s bond, he gives him a clearly unexpected public lip-lock. American tenor Charles Workman, a fine singing actor, still plays jeunes premiers in many major European theaters; DVD close-ups are more challenging, but Workman portrays Bassanio — not a hero — very well, his tenor holding up cleanly in all but the most challenging high tessitura Tchaikowsky demands. 

Met Queen of the Night Kathryn Lewek plays Jessica, sounding lovely; the high melismatic music she and Jason Bridges’s deftly voiced Lorenzo sing together in Act I proves some of the most enjoyable writing. Shylock is Viennese favorite Adrian Eröd, an excellent singing actor with an admirable wide-range, though his voice — to my ear — is not especially attractive or individual of timbre. In the past two years he’s been heard in Houston and Washington. Clearly,Eröd knows his way around a stage, and his English proves up to the task. Alas, Tchai­kowsky didn’t give Shylock anything riveting to sing. The musical standards are very high under Erik Nielsen, but the opera remains more a worthwhile curiosity than a recovered treasure. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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