There seems to be an agreement among current composers of what they insist on calling “operas” to avoid anything that sounds like a melody. So I had little hope that Andre Tchaikowsky’s “The Merchant of Venice” would be an exception. It is not, I concluded, after watching a 2013 performance at the Bregenz Festival on a EuroArts DVD.
By abridging Shakespeare’s text and adding many new lines, Librettist John O’Brien supplies the composer with all sorts of opportunities for memorable musical moments in this tale of high fantasy and ugly social commentary. But that is not Tchaikowsky’s purpose. Even the one song, “Tell me where is fancy bred,” sounds no more melodic than any of the other passages.
Okay, I am sure that some musicologists find wonderful things in this score. It is interesting to read in the program notes that the Polish-born Tchaikowsky “is no ordinary career pianist” and has a reputation for being “difficult.” It also says that he finds the piano concertos of Grieg, Tchaikovksy and Rachmaninoff “corny.” Well, in an age of ugliness when jeans are purchased already in shreds, beautiful music would be anathema to some! (Yet he professes to like Mozart.)
The composer’s technique seems to be a series of seemingly arbitrary vocal pitches, with certain syllables given three notes, such as “be-cau-au-ause,” for no apparent reason. And when in two cases, the singer suddenly speaks a line, I wonder why they all don’t simply speak all the lines and be done with it. Yes, I am perhaps not privy to the secret code that is understood by the conductor and singers.
In a 50-minute “making of” film, the singers state that the vocal lines looked too difficult at first but proved “singable.” Well, the vocal lines of Bizet, Verdi, and dozens of other “corny” composers are certainly singable without looking difficult. Does a difficult score make it a good score by definition?
In a like manner, Director Keith Warner has chosen to set the play around the start of the last century (dull costumes) with a series of walls for the street scenes (dull scenery) and a maze for Portia’s palace at Belmont (dull symbolism). The Prince of Aragon is a comic mime while the Prince of Morocco is a gymnastic dancer.
Shylock’s trial is powerful, not because of the music, but because of the situation. Adrian Erod plays the moneylender sympathetically (as is done in all recent productions of Shakespeare’s play), while Magdalena Anna Hofmann’s Portia turns from the fairy princess of the earlier scenes to a woman as bigoted and revengeful as the others.
The role of Antonio is given to a countertenor, Christopher Ainslie, who is directed to give his buddy Bassanio (Charles Workman) a big kiss on the mouth, thereby taking away all the subtlety of their relationship as it is in the original play.
All in all, I can find little fault in the singers’ ability to cope with this music—I find Erod’s voice especially appealing—but I just have trouble listening to this score. I read that the English National Opera turned down this work in 1984, so this 2013 production was its premiere. The notes go on to say that another of Tchaikowsky’s operas was not well received by “some rather unimaginative critics.” Poor benighted souls!
Well, I can only give my reaction to this work. Others might vehemently disagree.
The disc holding the performances runs 160 minutes. The work is in English and the subtitles are a real help. An extra disc holds only the 50-minute set of interviews.
Note: Several other operas based on Shakespeare’s works suffer from the composers’ trying to set the original script to music. A good example is Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center and flopped. In my mind, the best English language opera in this field is Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love,” in which he cut the original text to a minimum and inserted the loveliest of English folk songs. But of course Vaughan Williams lived at time when melody was expected and composers knew how to create it.