Magazine article The Spectator

Facing Reality

Magazine article The Spectator

Facing Reality

Article excerpt

The Portrait

Opera North, touring until 3 March

Artistic integrity is the subject of Mieczysaw Weinberg's opera The Portrait, as it is of Gogol's short story from which it is adapted. And whatever one might feel about the work - and I enjoyed it a lot more than most of my colleagues seem to have - Opera North is unquestionably demonstrating artistic integrity by staging relatively or very unknown operas in productions which don't have as their main selling point that the director has never seen, let alone directed, an opera before.

On the contrary, Opera North goes for the most experienced directors they can get, in this case David Pountney, who is not only responsible for the production, but is also doing all he can for Weinberg's work, and, together with Anastasia Koshkina, translated the libretto into English (the opera is also surtitled much of the time, which seems to indicate that Pountney is a late convert to the practice of which he was the leading opponent for many years; or that Opera North did it over his prostrate body).

Gogol has been the inspiration for a prodigious number of Slav composers, which is not surprising in one way, since his tales often include highly colourful characters and episodes, which seem to be crying out for extravagant theatrical treatment. On the other hand, Gogol's tone is one that it is almost impossible to catch in an operatic treatment, so that his stories often come across more vividly on the page than on the stage, even when set by Tchaikovsky or Rimsky or Shostakovich.

And The Portrait, one of his masterworks, though less famous than many of his tales, has a complexity and subtlety of approach to its subject which is simply untranslatable into another medium. You might say that that hardly matters, since Alexander Medvedev, who wrote the libretto, produced an independent text which only took Gogol as its inspiration. But my impression from having encountered the opera only once so far is that it would hardly make sense if one didn't have the tale fresh in one's mind; but that if one does have, the inadequacies of the adaptation are all too apparent. And Weinberg's music, though it has merits, is not of the kind that can characterise with a single memorable phrase, though that is sometimes what it wants to do.

So while Gogol's tale, like most things he wrote, is alarmingly alive with vivid figures, however small their part in the plot, and almost gives one the feeling of entering into an hallucination, Weinberg's opera, though it quotes liberally from the tale, remains stubbornly two-dimensional, despite a lively production and despite being extraordinarily well cast. …

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