The Merchant of Venice by Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Hippodrome - review

Welsh National Opera returns to the West Midlands and presents for its Autumn season its Shakespeare400-themed week which includes The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and Kiss Me Kate.

The Merchant of Venice's Antonio gambles in the tavern
The Merchant of Venice's Antonio gambles in the tavern

However, opera fans will be disappointed to learn the company will not be presenting a Spring programme next year and that the next performances will not be in Birmingham until next June. This effectively means that a popular opera like La Boheme can only be seen if opera lovers want to travel to Bristol or Cardiff leaving Butterfly, Fledermaus and Rosenkavalier for the Summer season.

The current offerings have clearly not appealed to local audiences. Last night's Merchant was poorly attended and the figures for Macbeth are not encouraging. Only Kiss Me Kate has sold well, but that is obviously a commercial Broadway musical and not serious opera.

This production of Merchant of Venice has a score by Andre Tchaikowsky. The Polish composer was born Robert Krauthammer and escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, and transportation to the death camp at Treblinka, by getting forged papers in the name of Andrzej Czajkowski and it is the English spelling of this name which he adopted. He had a successful international career as a pianist but had a reputation for being difficult with both audiences and management. He once played the entire forty-five minute long Diabelli Variations as an encore for an audience he took a dislike to.

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, ranked by Yougov as the 5th most popular of his plays, contains one of the best known speeches in the English language—the one which begins "The quality of mercy is not strained..." It is very difficult to set this speech to music, especially where the vocal line is effectively just sung recitative. The score was very descriptive, but often the singers appeared to have to compete with the orchestra to make the vocal line distinct.

Generally the cast sang well, with Mark Le Brocq, as Bassanio, and Bruce Sledge, as Lorenzo, especially giving stylish performances. Sarah Castle gave us a very feisty Portia, aided and abetted by Verena Gunz as Nerissa.

Quentin Hughes played Shylock as a very unrepentant and unforgiving financier who therefore deserved the fate that befell him. Martin Wolfel seemed very under-powered as Antonio. His opening phrases were inaudible and he rarely got to grips with making his character in any way plausible.

Keith Warner's 2013 production seemed somewhat anti-Semitic at times with costumes at one point reminiscent of the Klu Klux Klan and Hitler Youth and a demonstration with burning torches taking place outside Shylock's house. Shylock's character seemed created to elicit very little sympathy and without any redeeming humanity. Not really surprising then that were gaps in the audience after the interval. The orchestra, under Lionel Friend, gave a clear account of the Nadia Boulanger-influenced score.

Welsh National Opera's programme continues tonight with Verdi's Macbeth and Kiss Me Kate on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

By Jerald Smith

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