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The Merchant of Venice review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘a skilful staging’

The cast of Welsh National Opera's The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Johan Persson
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The story behind the UK premiere of this opera is an extraordinary one. Born in Warsaw in 1935, Robert Andrzej Krauthammer was one of thousands of Jews relocated five years later to the Ghetto by the Nazis. His grandmother somehow got him out, while his mother was sent to Treblinka. The former also renamed him Andre Tchaikowsky (after her favourite Russian composer) to disguise his origins.

Not only did Tchaikowsky survive the war, but he became an internationally acclaimed concert pianist, eventually settling in England. He wrote music, too, though his primary career left him little time for composition, and by the time of his death in 1982 he had failed to persuade anyone to perform this Shakespearean opera – his magnum opus. It finally reached the stage in Bregenz in 2013.

In some ways the result is disappointing. For the first two acts, Tchaikowsky sets the text in grey and anonymous vocal lines that reflect the fashionable modernism of the period (1968-82) and which register as capable but inexpressive.

But with the trial scene the opera, and Keith Warner’s skilful staging, lifts off. One is gripped and ultimately intensely moved by Tchaikowsky’s response to Shylock’s humiliation, which is so marvellously realised by American baritone Lester Lynch that it becomes almost unbearable to watch.

Fine performances from Sarah Castle’s eloquent Portia, Verena Gunz’s quick-witted Nerissa, Lauren Michelle’s lithe, lyrical Jessica and Bruce Sledge’s warm-toned Lorenzo flesh out the drama, though countertenor Martin Wolfel fails to make sufficient impact as Antonio.

Lionel Friend conducts a performance that is absolutely assured, showing off some fine things in the orchestral writing, notably a powerful Alban Berg-like interlude between the last two scenes. While the opera as a whole is less than satisfactory, the third act and epilogue are incredibly memorable.

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Andre Tchaikowsky’s intermittently great opera receives a fine UK premiere staging