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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on