The Portrait, Grand Theatre, Leeds<br/>The Schubert Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London

Musically, Opera North's Weinberg revival is subtle and tautly sung. Visually, though, it tries too hard
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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).