André Tchaikowsky’s opera ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is in three acts after William Shakespeare, with a libretto by John O’Brien. Here, thanks to the British theatre and opera
director/producer David Poutney, it’s receiving a belated world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in 2013.
Tchaikowsky finished the opera, apart from orchestrating the last 24 bars, shortly before his premature death from colon cancer in 1982 at the young age of forty-six. The missing orchestration was later carried out by Alan Bousted. The opera absorbed the composer for almost a quarter of a century.
Despite the advocacy of the influential writer and music critic Hans Keller, the opera never got further than a play-through in December 1981, at the English National Opera (in the presence of Lord Harwood, Mark Elder and David Poutney). Since that time, it has sadly languished in obscurity. Keller was to write in 1984, two years after the composer’s death, ‘I ... have no hesitation in describing it as an outstanding work, both musically and theatrically’.
It came as a surprise to me when I discovered that Tchaikowsky was a composer (review
) as well as a concert pianist (review
). Indeed, he regarded his principal calling as that of a composer, and his concert-giving almost as a means financially to support that end. Debt was a constant worry throughout his life, even more so when he incurred medical expenses in Germany in his last year when he had to undergo emergency surgery for a life-threatening event. Throughout his career he had a deep underlying resentment at the time spent in practice and the travel involved in the life of a piano virtuoso. He seemed to be only truly fulfilled in the act of composition - creation rather than recreation.
Briefly, the opera is set in Renaissance Venice and focuses on a nobleman by the name of Bassanio who wishes to woo Portia of Belmont. For this, he needs 3,000 ducats. He approaches his friend Antonio, a merchant of some wealth, for a loan. As Antonio is strapped for cash, he promises to guarantee the loan if Bassanio can source it elsewhere. This he does from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who stipulates that the money should be repaid within three months or he will exact a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
The musical writing is complex but well-crafted, and I sensed some echoes of Berg in some of the score. Tchaikowsky’s magnum opus is ambitious and shows daring confidence, surprisingly so, as the composer had never embarked on an operatic score before. Erik Nielsen is very skilled in teasing out the orchestral detail from the excellent Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
This is a stunning production, and the simple, minimalist scenery complements the stark and translucent orchestration. Very effective are the subtle changes of scenery, in semi-darkness as the drama progresses. There’s a fine array of singers. Christopher Ainslie (counter-tenor) who plays Antonio, and Adrian Eröd (baritone) playing Shylock stand out and merit special mention for performances of distinction.
The accompanying booklet provides background and context in English and German. There are quotes taken from Anastasia Belina-Johnson’s excellent, well-researched ‘biography’ of Tchaikowsky, which I reviewed
earlier in the year. Subtitles are in English, German, French and Polish. A second disc contains a fascinating 50 minute behind-the-scenes documentary, charting the evolution of the production. I found it helpful watching this before the opera itself.