André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the years leading up to his premature death in 1982 but, despite interest from ENO in the 1980s, it did not get a full performance until David Pountney decided to stage it at the the 2013 Bregenz Festival with Keith Warner directing. It’s hard to explain the neglect though Pountney ascribes it some degree as the fate of the emigré (the composer being a Polish Jew domiciled in the UK). The Merchant of Venice is a really solid piece. It’s got all the elements; a strong story, a really interesting but not overly intimidating score and really good writing for voice (it really is singable). It’s the right length at around two and a half hours and it doesn’t call for unreasonable orchestral or vocal forces. John O’Brien’s libretto even manages to overcome some of the objections to staging Shakespeare’s play. While one might consider the Shakespeare piece to be antisemitic, O’Brien’s libretto is much more clearly about anti-semitism. There’s also a clear homoerotic element in the Antonio – Bassanio relationship and perhaps too in Portia – Nerissa.
It’s also very much a work of three acts (four really). In Act 1 the scene is set with the bond between Antonio and Shylock, Jessica’s elopement and so on. Shylock is clearly an outsider in a Christian world but it’s fairly subtle at this point. Act 2, with the lottery for Portia’s marriage and so on is a kind of scherzo; comic relief almost before the trial scene of Act 3. Act 3 is almost unbearable. It portrays the sheer relentless injustice of Shylock’s trial. He’s not a sympathetic character of course. The real injustices that he has suffered have driven him in a horrible direction but it’s Portia in her guise of the lawyer who really terrifies. The quality of mercy is severely strained as she relentlessly uses the law to destroy the Jew. It’s legally correct yet flagrantly unjust and modern parallels aren’t hard to find. I guess Portia just didn’t quite need a water cannon. There’s also an epilogue in which Christian domesticity, or at least some sort of four cornered version of it, is restored and the inconvenient Jew forgotten.
David Warner’s production is fairly straightforward. He sets it in the early 20th century where anti-Semitism is credible but Jews don’t have to look like caricatures. Interestingly the only uses of stereotypical Jewish caricature elements are by the Christians when they are taunting Shylock. The opera is framed by a cameo of Antonio and his, presumably Jewish, psychiatrist which is thought provoking. The main set feature is a wall of safes that can be reconfigured to form various domestic and public spaces. Most of this happens on the fly so that the action is fairly continuous. The characters are well drawn and he think he does a good job of morally positioning Shylock and his adversaries. There are some neat comic touches with rather over thee top suitors in Act 2 and the Epilogue has a kind of surreal quality that belies the events that precede it.
The cast is very decent though far from starry. Adrian Eröd, looking like a cross between Abe Lincoln and Russell Braun, gives a strongly sung and multi-faceted performance as Shylock. The ever reliable Charles Workman is an excellent Bassanio. Christopher Ainslie, a countertenor, is convincing dramatically as a depressive, insecure and rather unlikeable Antonio. Critics of the stage production complained that he was underpowered and sometimes he seems that way when singing with Workman but for the most part it’s not an issue on disc. Portia is sung by Magdalena Anna Hofmann. She’s convincing and sounds good in Act 2 and the Epilogue but a little forced in the trial scene. This though may be deliberate and is not unreasonable. Verena Gunz is a charming and rather funny Nerissa. The minor roles are all more than adequate. Erik Nielsen conducts and makes a convincing case for the score ably supported by the Wiener Symphonker and the Prague Philharmonic Choir.
Felix Breisach’s direction for film is fine. When he uses non theatrical angles it’s to good effect. There are times when the set looks best from high up for example. The picture and sound (DTS-HD) on Blu-ray are of the expected high quality. There’s a 50 minute documentary Journey to Bregenz – The Planning of an Opera that is well worth watching in its own right and as an aid to understanding the piece and the production. The booklet contains a track listing and synopsis and two short but thoughtful essays by Pountney. Subtitle options are English, German, French and Polish.
In some ways The Merchant of Venice might seem an odd text for a first opera by a depressive, homosexual Polish Jew but the way the story is treated rather explains itself. Certainly it’s a very worthwhile edition to the catalogue of late 20th operas and this disc presents it to advantage.