Welsh National Opera should be congratulated for being bold enough to present challenging pieces, and Andre Tchaikowsky’s Merchant of Venice is certainly challenging. It challenges the singers, the orchestra (all of whom did splendidly) and the audience, some of whom seemed a little wilted by the time the final curtain came down to, sadly, only polite applause.
Anyone familiar with WNO tours will know that they usually sandwich something unusual and less frequently performed between two big crowd-pleasers: and in the past this approach has been hugely successful – their Kata Kabanova a few years ago was an unexpected delight. This time their visit to Bristol begins with Merchant… before moving on to Verdi’s Macbeth and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.
Shakespeare’s Merchant… never used to be considered one of his ‘problem’ plays, but its vicious anti-Semitism has made it an increasingly uncomfortable watch. Shylock would have originally been seen as something of a comic grotesque to the Bard’s Globe audience but, performed (magnificently) here by Lester Lynch – an African American baritone whose voice soars above Tchaikowsky’s grumbling score – he is treated with breathtaking cruelty. His colour adds special poignancy to his portrayal of Shylock as a wronged man, prejudiced against at every turn.
On a point of law that has nothing to do with justice, he is tricked out of his money and his revenge by Portia (Sarah Castle) and Nerissa (Verena Gunz) and is left a broken man. Financially ruined and baited by a mocking crowd, he is finally even forced to give up his religion.
There are some brief moments of humour and Shylock’s humanity does show through: but make no mistake, this is a brave, uncompromising start to WNO’s autumn season in the city.
Welsh National Opera continue at the Hippodrome with Macbeth (Wed Oct 12) and Kiss Me, Kate (Thur Oct 13-Sat Oct 15). For more info and to book tickets, visit www.atgtickets.com/venues/bristol-hippodrome
Pics: Johann Persson