The Portrait, Grand Theatre, Leeds
The Schubert Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London

Musically, Opera North's Weinberg revival is subtle and tautly sung. Visually, though, it tries too hard

If you draw a blank at the name of Miecszylaw Weinberg, you are not alone.

Born in Poland in 1919, to a family of Jewish theatre musicians and actors, he fled the Holocaust only to fall foul of Stalin's "anti-cosmopolitan campaign". Weinberg was, in every sense, a survivor: modest and without self-pity. Never a party member, he paid his bills composing film scores, produced more than 20 symphonies, and lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sadly, he died before his most important opera, The Passenger, was premiered in Moscow in 2006. It comes to London this autumn. Meanwhile, David Pountney's Opera North production of The Portrait spearheads the British Weinberg revival, with mixed results.

Deftly, even delicately scored, often for single instruments or unaccompanied voice, Weinberg's 1980 adaptation of Gogol's short story of a high-minded artist corrupted by greed and celebrity is lent too heavy and specific a subtext by Pountney and his designer, Dan Potra. Where the composer shrugs and raises a sardonic eyebrow at human folly, lacing his score with shreds of Yiddish folk-music and glittering dances, the director thumps the table, delivering a lecture on creative compromise under Stalin and a clumsy side-swipe at two of recent history's most commercially successful artists, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.

As Weinberg's leading champion, Pountney is strangely reluctant to let the composer's work speak for itself. Musically, The Portrait is subtle to a fault, cleanly and calmly paced by conductor Rossen Gergov from the first foggy call of the horn to the hallucinatory whirl of the final scene, and tautly sung by an impressive ensemble cast. Visually, it's a hit-and-miss hotchpotch of images from the "I Don't Know Much About Art But I Know What I Like" postcard book, opening with Chagall's weightless shtetl archetypes, then moving on to a gallery of twinkly-eyed Stalins, before the apparent nadir of Hirst's diamond skull. Seduced by fame and fashion, glutted on society portraits, cracked-up, burned-out and crowned with a Warhol fright-wig, Paul Nilon's Chartkov realises too late that he has been paid for "flattery and lies".

From Holbein to Testino, flattery has been essential to portraiture. But Pountney, who dabbled in contemporary art with his Wilson Twins-inspired production of The Flying Dutchman, cannot resist exaggeration any more than he can resist taking a pop at Hirst. Stretched freakishly tall on stilts or, in the case of Katherine Broderick, compressed like a crinolined beetle on a hidden go-cart, Chartkov's wealthy subjects understandably want to avoid the truth, while his silent muse, Psyche (Hedda Oosterhoff), saunters untouchable on scarlet stilettos. Suspended on wires, Nicholas Sharratt's sinister Lamplighter shares the sweetest music with Richard Burkhard's sympathetic Nikita, who is accompanied by a bandaged flautist (Fiona Slominska) from Magritte. There's an interesting opera in here somewhere, though not a great one, and a fearless performance from Nilon. Unfortunately, the art gets in the way.

There was a far greater sense of narrative and emotional connection in The Schubert Ensemble's dynamic performance of Enescu's Piano Quartet in D minor at the Wigmore Hall. Dedicated to the memory of Fauré, Enescu's composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, this desolate work seems to trace the end of an affair: first cool and disinterested, then luxuriantly carnal, finally bitter and cancerous, a violent tirade of mutual recrimination. This is fantasy, of course, for if Enescu had intended his Piano Quartet to depict a break-up, he would probably have said so, and detailed with whom, where and when. As violinist Simon Blendis explained, every bow and breath is marked in the score, every fingering, every slide and sigh. Too proscriptive? Apparently not. And, oh, that chord in the second movement.

The Schubert Ensemble are blessed with the most natural, unforced, singing tone – strings and piano alike. In Dvorak's virile, big-hearted Piano Quartet in E flat, the keyboard becomes an orchestra for a triple concerto, all rolling chords and quivering trills, seldom pianistic in any conventional sense, frequently downright awkward. There's something of Rusalka in the G flat major slow movement, with its moonstruck cello melody. But the water-nymph is quickly chased away by the tumble of the Scherzo, and the forthright energy of the Finale. With his piano lid fully open, William Howard narrowly avoided overwhelming the string players. In Schubert's Notturno, the balance made more sense, as violinist Blendis and cellist Jane Salmon were held in stasis over the fluttering figurations and uneasy modulations of this enigmatic, orphaned slow movement to an unwritten Piano Trio.

'The Portrait': Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0844 811 2121), 18 Feb, then touring

Next Week:

Push-up bra at the ready, Anna Picard meets opera's latest femme fatale, Anna Nicole

Classical Choice

Harry Fehr returns to Scottish Opera to direct Handel's Orlando at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (from Tue), while in Manchester Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé in a programme of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony, Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and extracts from Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face, at the Bridgewater Hall (Thu).

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most