Friday, 4 March 2011

The Portrait (Opera North) – The Lowry, Salford

Music: Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Libretto: Alexander Medvedev
Director: David Pountney
Reviewer: Malcolm Wallace

Written in 1980 and first performed in 1983, Opera North now present the belated British premiere of The Portrait, an intriguing opera by prolific Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a man compared favourably to the more well known composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol and with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev translated with mixed results into English by Director David Pountney and Anastasia Koshkina, the ghostly tale tells of talented artist Chartkov who, after buying a strange painting from a junk shop finds fame and fortune only for his world to dramatically fall apart as he descends into madness and ultimately death.

It is not a cheerful story, but the telling of it is littered with humour, something Pountney as Director appears to have deliberately emphasised. The piece is rich with outrageous characters whose quirks and absurdities are at once amusing yet also deeply unsettling.

Musically, it is somewhat uneven. The piece is tonal and at times reasonably lyrical, but there are no memorable tunes. However, there is some brilliant orchestration work which, alongside the stunning tenor voice of Nicholas Sharratt as the Lamplighter, renders the opening to acts 1 and 3 deeply atmospheric and spine chilling.

This is Opera North on top form, both from a performer and orchestral point of view. Along side the aforementioned Nicholas Sharratt, Paul Nilon also possesses a fine tenor voice and proves his worth as an actor with his excellent portrayal of the artist Chartkov. An excellent performance is also given by Richard Burkhard as Chartkov’s servant Nikita.

The remaining nine singing cast exert themselves superbly with crystal clear diction and under the direction of Rossen Gergov the ever excellent Orchestra of Opera North and the cast maintain a near perfect dynamic balance.

Dan Potra is responsible for both costumes and set, and scores success with both. His colourful and textured set for acts 1 and 2 contrasts effectively with the stark and empty setting for act 3 and the costume designs achieve a similar effect. There is a very clever lighting design by Linus Fellbom which accentuates the more mysterious elements and Pountney’s decision to use video in act 3 heightens the drama of the affecting conclusion.

Although The Portrait is not likely to enter the repertoire of commonly performed and popular operas, it is an opera well worthy of the production values afforded to it by Opera North and whilst it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it has much to recommend it and thoroughly deserved the enthusiastic response the audience delivered in Salford.

Reviewed on the 3rd March
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