David Pountney's blog - May 3, 2012
Hello this is me: Born Oxford 1947. Brought up in a Mill House in the Vale of the White Horse. Choirboy at St. John's Cambridge. Trumpeter. Member of National Youth Orchestra. Radley College. Then back to Cambridge - reading History and English but mainly directing operas. My final calling card - The Seven Deadly Sins - got me a job at Scottish Opera, and a wonderful learning curve with its driving forces Peter Hemmings and Alexander Gibson. Then my dear friend Mark Elder asked me to join him at ENO, which turned into 10 thrilling years. We took a lot of brickbats then: now everyone talks about a "Golden Age". Went off to learn about the world as a free-lance, and then became Intendant of the Bregenz Festival in Austria, where my contract runs till 2013. In autumn 2011 I took over as artistic director of WNO. I've directed lots of operas, even written the words for some, in most places around the world: amazingly enough it still excites me!
Last week in Cardiff two of the amazing pianists he have on our staff completed a play-through on piano of an opera by André Tchaikowsky. Who on earth is that?
In brief, André was born in 1935 in Warsaw as Robert Andrzej Krauthammer. In 1939 he and his family were taken into the Warsaw ghetto, but his Grandmother, a resourceful lady evidently, had other ideas. She bought false papers for herself, his mother and Andrzej, and used for the papers the name of her favourite composer, Tchaikowsky. André spent the rest of the war hiding in a cupboard in the bedroom of a young pregnant girl who André thought must be the Virgin Mary! Someone certainly prayed for him: he survived.
After the war he continued his training as a pianist and was rapidly recognised as an outstanding virtuoso. André eventually fled Soviet Poland and came to Britain, but despite Rubinstein's energetic encouragement, André never had the temperament for the life of a concert pianist. Increasingly, he longed to compose.
He managed a legendary piano concerto, premiered by Uri Segal and Radu Lupu, some chamber music, but then, gripped by his fascination for Shakespeare, he embarked on an opera, and chose of all subjects, for a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, "The Merchant of Venice."
Quite apart from his all too authentic experience of anti-Semitism, it is a brilliant choice for an opera, mainly because of the way in which the play traverses two vividly opposed worlds, each suggesting a different type of musical expression. Venice is the male world of business and money - the World Trade Centre of its time, a place dominated by hatred, intolerance and material values. Shakespeare wastes no time in telling us that this is a bad place to be human:
These are the opening lines of the play, and a modern reader has no difficulty in identifying Antonio, the Merchant of the title and the speaker, as a depressive, and one whose tongue does not hesitate to add to the sum of hate in Venice:
Shylock: You call'd me dog....
I am as like to call thee so again,
Those who seek love rather than hate, leave: Lorenzo elopes with Jessica, Shylock's daughter, and Bassanio borrows Antonio's money to go away to woo Portia, thereby unwittingly putting Antonio at Shylock's mercy.
By contrast Belmont, the residence of Portia, is a place of women, love and music. And the strange device of the caskets which her wooers must correctly choose in order to gain her hand carries an unmistakeable message. The winner, Bassanio, chooses the lead casket, not the gold or silver. The element of monetary value which is the primary measure of value in Venice is here worthless.
André seizes the musical possibilities of these contrasted milieus with astonishing assurance, as if this were his 5th opera. The two Venice acts are dark and violent. Belmont is given music of exquisite lyricism, coloured with references to Renaissance music-making, and he is also able to do humour, especially in the two very wittily composed pantomimes for the ridiculous suitors from Arragon and Morocco.
André's style could loosely be described as post Bergian - but tonal, or perhaps more often bi-tonal. It is less dense than Berg, and frequently explores a really tender lyricism and eloquence. There is witty and lively music for the chorus, and the big moments - Portia's "Mercy" speech, the love duet of Rebecca and Lorenzo, ("In such a night…' ' the text Berlioz purloined for Dido and Aeneas returned to its rightful context!) and the horrifyingly tragic debacle of Shylock are all composed with total assurance - the latter's lonely exit from the court- room climaxing with a superbly imagined operatic moment when Shylock opens the doors and is greeted by a shattering cry of "Jew" from the chorus.
The two great roles of the piece, Shylock and Portia, go through dramatic developments which André also seizes on in their music. Shylock, despite the violence and villainy of his language, gradually becomes a tragic figure, condemned to a horrifying, lonely exit. Portia brings female reason and compassion to Venice, but then she too is changed by her disguise as a man, and is in some sense contaminated by Venice and its mores. As the trial progresses and she feels Shylock increasingly at her mercy, she by turn becomes as ruthless as he, driving him out to the ultimate humiliation: conversion to the Christian faith. (Though for Shakespeare's audience this would have been seen as giving him a chance for redemption.)
At this moment of supreme power, the women Portia and Nerissa pull off the intrigue of the rings, forcing Bassanio and Gratiano to surrender as payment for their legal services the rings with which they had pledged their love in Belmont. This may seem like a trivial and unfair trick, after the high drama of Shylock's humiliation, but in fact it adds another dimension to the romance of Belmont, teased out with delightful lyricism in the Epilogue. After all, the men do not give up their wives' rings for trivial purposes, but in recompense for the saving of Antonio's life. The intrigue is perhaps a symbol for the tolerance and understanding necessary for a true marriage of minds and bodies. It gives depth and reality to the idyll of Belmont, and the hope that having put their love through this test, the two couples will survive and prosper in marriage.
I must be careful not to call it a masterpiece as we learnt from the Passenger that nothing irritates the critics more than being told what to think, but it is an enormously important addition to that small group of operas written in English, and another valuable Shakespearian work - much finer and more subtle for instance than Reiman's rather noisy Lear.
We will do the world stage premiere in Bregenz in 2013, and of course I hope that it will then not only go to Warsaw, but also have its British premiere in Cardiff, perhaps in the course of the 2016 Shakespeare anniversary.
There is one little personal aspect to this story which demands the German word which so often comes up around Jewish themes: "Wiedergutmachung" - making good again - reparation I suppose would be our term. I have in fact heard the opera once before, or at least part of it, played by André himself! This was very shortly after I arrived at ENO, a private performance for Lord Harewood and a small committee of people including myself and Mark Elder. I have no memory of it, but that certainly has more to do with the circumstances than the quality of the work. Mark remembers that Andrej's piano playing was incredible.
But now I have read Andrej's diary, with the depressive's intoxicated anticipation beforehand, and equally pole-axed despair on receiving the note from Lord Harewood that explained that ENO could not find room to perform it. Not long after, André discovered that he had stomach cancer.
Mention of André's depression reminds me that there is another very touching personal angle: the depressed Antonio is a very personal and sensitive self portrait of André himself - a depressive homo-sexual (it is written for a counter-tenor) who is the one left poignantly alone (just as Shylock is of course) once everyone has happily paired off beneath the idyllic night-sky of Belmont.
The idyllic night sky over the Bodensee will give us the right atmosphere to experience this astonishing work for the first time in 2013. The fact that it is a Wiedergutmachung is a luxury: there would be no point in doing that if the piece was not important and utterly convincing. I am thrilled that we are discovering another valuable piece of operatic literature.