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.
Carl Nielsen’s operas don’t get performed much outside his native Denmark so it’s no surprise that the only video recording of his 1902 opera Saul og David was recorded in Copenhagen. The libretto is a fairly straightforward telling of the familiar story of Saul, David, Goliath, Samuel and so on. The music is very much of its time. It’s bold and lyrical; perhaps reminiscent of Strauss in a conventional mood or, perhaps, Elgar. There are some really good choruses and David and Michal get a gorgeous duet in Act 3.
I was back last night to see Bicycle Opera Project’s Shadowbox again. This time it was in the more intimate, and highly appropriate, setting of a bicycle shop; Curbside Cycle on Bloor Street. Minus the high roof of the Davenport-Perth Community Centre it was much easier to understand the sung text which is pretty important with this show. The show is an interesting concept. It’s still a series of scenes by different composers and librettists but they are linked thematically by the common idea of memory and dramatically by the auction of objects that set up each scene The auctioneer is rather brilliantly played by Chris Enns who, curiously, seemed quite sinister at Davenport-Perth (like something out of a German Expressionist movie perhaps) but seemed quite avuncular close up.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has long been one of my favourite conductors, particularly for pieces that require a strong sense of period. The same goes for the wonderful Zürich Opera House Orchestra who, uniquely as far as I know, can change up their instruments to suit the piece. For Weber’s Der Freischütz, recorded in 1999, they use valveless brass but, as best I can tell, modern woodwinds and it all sounds great especially in the many hunting scenes.
Last night I was in a very full Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre for the second annual COC Studio Ensemble competition. Ten singers, selected down from 146 in auditions across Canada and in New York were competing for cash prizes and an opportunity to join the COC Ensemble Studio. COC General Director Alexander Neef chaired the panel of judges which included soprano and teacher Wendy Nielsen as well as assorted COC brass. Chorus Master Sandra Horst MC’d in her own inimitable fashion. The format was typical of such events. Each singer offered five arias. They got to sing one of their choice and then the judges requested a second from the remaining four. Piano accompaniment alternated between the equally excellent Rachel Andrist and Steven Philcox.