Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews


The Merchant of Venice

Welsh National Opera , Wales Millennium Centre , September 16, 2016
The Merchant of Venice by Welsh National Opera André Tchaikowsky is clearly the composer meant to give us the operatic version of Shakespeare’s ‘antisemitic’ tragi-comedy The Merchant of Venice. As a child he had survived the Polish ghetto in the Second World War. He emerged as a genius piano player and spent many years playing concerts throughout the world. His own music breaks away from the romance of the great classical composers in his repertoire. He produces a somewhat discordant beauty with few flowing melodies. Each member of this brilliant cast surmounts the singing difficulties the music brings, with perfection.
It would seem that the cadences of the composition and the fact that the play is listed as a comedy in Shakespeare’s First Folio has been picked up by director Keith Warner as a key to the lively way he has presented this production to us. This took a little getting used to but once seen in the overall context of the production, he was clearly spot-on. His theatre background ensured that we also got some great acting performances from every member of this shining cast.

Designer Ashley Martin-Davis’ first act is a wide-open bare stage with bright white walls on all three sides. The stage and the auditorium darkens and in a low light we see in silhouette Antonio, the merchant, lying on a psychiatrist’s couch with the consultant sitting just above him. Is it Antonio’s dream-like recollection of events we are about to see?

Now on the bright streets of Venice the wimpish Antonio tells us “in sooth I know not why I am so sad” and we don’t either. German counter tenor Martin Wölfel defines his character well and sings very tunefully but he sings so quietly that is difficult to hear him. This is not the case with the other members of the cast who all come over loud and clear. His friend Bassanio, excellently voiced by English tenor Mark Le Brocq, wants a loan from him so that he can pursue his love for the heiress Portia. There’s a bit of a problem, Antonio’s money is, at the moment all tied up in his shipping ventures. He decides to seek a loan from the much-despised Jewish loan merchant Shylock. This Shylock is no fawning stereotype but from the magnificent Lester Lynch we discover a fine actor/comedian with a great, commanding baritone. And he will have his pound of flesh – they joke!

The silver walls of scenery move smoothly into various configurations of locale, adding yet another touch of surrealism to the stage pictures. Shylock keeps his daughter Jessica locked up and away from the carnival. Her young lover Lorenzo arranges her escape and she slides down a rope of bed-sheets into his arms. Lauren Michelle and Bruce Sledge are a feisty couple. They duet together in the moonlit epilogue. The Los Angeles Soprano shows us why she won The 2015 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Fellow American, Sledge shows why his tenori di grazia is very much in demand.

Act two is even more fun as the princes seek out their caskets in a complex clipped maze edge, with its own refection on the back wall of the stage! Juliusz Kubiak as The Prince of Aragon with his goose-stepping walk and pointy helmet soon gets lost in the puzzling walk and picking the wrong casket, loses his chance for the hand of Bassanio’s heiress Portia. Despite his skillful acrobatics, the same fate befalls Wade Lewin’s colourful Prince of Morocco. New Zealander Sarah Castle, adds to this diverse international cast, giving us a sparkling Mezzo with a delightful giggling comic touch. Surprise, surprise, Bassanio finds Portia’s picture in the third casket: they celebrate their love. In their duets Sarah Castle and Mark Le Brocq are complete masters of Tchaikowsky’s challenging music.

All set for a happy ending but Antonio’s ships have faltered out at sea. He cannot fulfill the terms of his loan from Shylock and the Jew insists on his pound of the Merchant’s flesh. No nonsense in this final scene. Shylock is deadly serious. He is prepared with his scales and his surgical knife. No pleading will change his mind. There is particularly fine and tense acting in this scene. Lynch, with so much authority the first part and a sniffling wreck at the close. The disguised Portia in her rescuing judgment insists:
“Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.”

Love conquers all – another masterful production from our own Welsh National Opera.

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Reviewed by: Michael Kelligan

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