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.
If you have ever wondered why a slapstick comedy is so called then look no further than Gilbert Deflo’s production of Prokofiev’s L’Amour des trois oranges recorded by L’Opéra de Paris in 2005. There’s a great deal of smacking with sticks; most of it by Barry Banks who gleefully whacks just about any bottom, male or female, that comes within range. The production is also slapstick in the generally understood sense of broad physical comedy. There are elements of commedia del arte and lots of circus; jugglers, clowns, fire swallowers, all wrapped up in a sort of 20s vamp aesthetic. It’s wildly chaotic in a rather fun way though it’s all a bit overwhelming and probably worked better in the theatre than on DVD.
Tan Dun’s Marco Polo is hugely ambitious. He uses Marco Polo’s legendary journey as a metaphor for Space and Time. He fuses a range of Western musical styles with Chinese, Tibetan and Indian instruments and vocal styles. Although most of the work is sung in English there are sections in Italian and Chinese and other bits in a sort of random polyglot. The cast includes a range of real, allegorical and psychological figures. Marco and Polo are in fact two characters; one representing action and the external and the other the psychological and internal. Kublai Khan, Dante, Shakespeare, Sheherazada and Mahler put in appearances and much of the narrative is carried by a Chinese opera singer playing the part of Rustichello; “the questioner”. To be honest, despite having read the booklet, watched Reiner Moritz’s “Making of” documentary and studied the chart below, most of the time I had no idea what was actually happening. It’s really all too abstract and involved to really work as music drama.
Robert Carsen’s clean, refined production of Handel’s Semele originated in Aix, was recorded in Zürich and eventually made it’s way to Vienna and Chicago. In many ways it is classic Carsen. It’s elegant and uncluttered, is strong on the detailed Personenregie, has a consistent design concept but isn’t really pushing a concept driven agenda. It’s also quite funny without descending to priapic donkeys. Also there are lots of chairs.
Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a peculiar piece in some ways. It was written to be performed at Cannon’s, the Edgware residence of the then Earl of Caernavon, presumably for his guests. Apparently the performance style was to have the singers sing from music stands in front of a painted backdrop. So, a sort of oratorio with curtains. It’s not uncommon to stage Handel oratorios as opera these days. Theodora is done quite often and even Messiah has been staged so it’s no great surprise that Acis and Galatea should be given a similar treatment. In fact Wayne McGregor’s 2009 Covent Garden production stages it as an opera and a ballet simultaneously combining the resources of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.