André Tchaikowsky’s London premiere of The Merchant of Venice is menacing, witty, moving, wacky, and at times downright weird. Lester Lynch is perfectly cast as Shylock, whose impassioned tone inspires the hatred and empathy for the Other that forms the basis of the tensions and contradictions in this challenging opera.
The second conflict is between Venice and Belmont in Acts One and Two, respectively. Act One ends disturbingly with flames and hooded Christian closing in on Shylock as the music reaches the apogee of its scoring. The parallel with KKK outfits makes this a particularly twisted and uncomfortable moment.
Act Two is Pythonesque by contrast, betraying Tchaikowsky’s sadistic humour–he once played the entire Goldberg Variations as an encore in response to a lukewarm reception. The scoring becomes significantly lighter, and at one point a performance takes place within the performance, played by a delightful off-stage baroque ensemble.
Not one corner of orchestral timbre, rhythm, or pitch is left untouched throughout the opera; Tchaikowsky described it as making Berg’s Wozzeck look like “Chopsticks”. And therein lies the problem. The opera is so stuffed with material that, at times, it becomes impossible to work out what is happening musically or textually. The fearlessness of WNO in attempting this behemoth is to be congratulated.