One of Opera North’s strengths is the company’s ability to make a case for the most neglected of operas. The Portrait, written in 1980 and not staged until 1983, receives its UK premiere at Leeds; its composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who died in 1996, was hardly known in the West until David Pountney headed a Weinberg revival as Intendant of the Bregenz Festival and now in his production for Opera North.
The immediate reaction is puzzlement that such an exhilarating work should be so neglected, but I suspect that it needs a production and performance of this commitment, creativity and musical quality to hold an audience: there are longueurs even here. The story, based on Nikolai Gogol, invites David Pountney’s expressionist approach: Chartkov, a young painter, told by his professor that he has great promise, finds that the purchase of a portrait brings him wealth and success. He betrays his art by making a fortune from flattering society portraits, but this leads only to tragedy. The differences in tone are difficult to negotiate: from early lyricism to broad caricature of society to existentialist angst. There is some wonderful writing for orchestra, especially for woodwind, and sharply defined musical characterisation, but Weinberg and librettist Alexander Medvedev do not always maintain momentum. Not every production will have the visual imagination of Pountney and his outstanding designer Dan Potra to compensate for this lack.
Whatever my doubts about The Portrait securing a place in the operatic repertoire, the Opera North production should definitely be seen. At the centre of it is a remarkable performance by Paul Nilon as Chartkov, almost never off-stage, singing with focus and precision and being willingly upstaged by the grotesque and the grandiose, until his agonised and infinitely subtle charting of his last act collapse. Peter Savidge, in multiple roles, mainly as Chartkov’s mentors, is suitably flamboyant, especially as the Landlady, but builds menace tellingly as, for instance, a Mephistophelian journalist, while Richard Burkhard’s Nikita progresses from Baldrick-type servant, with echoes of folk song in his music, to Chartkov’s eloquent nurse and apologist. An impressive cast, mostly of heavily disguised Opera North regulars, combines vocal excellence and studied eccentricity in assorted roles, with Nicholas Sharratt’s Lamplighter especially haunting.
The production, with Linus Fellborn’s dramatic lighting plot supporting Pountney and Potra, is unfailingly theatrical, from the appearance of the Lamplighter flown in at the start to the gloriously costumed giants of the upper-class customers to the last-act Stalinist transformation. Under the young Bulgarian Rossen Gergov, who conducted the opera last year in a different production in Bregenz, the orchestra’s contribution is dynamic and idiomatic. This is a striking evening’s theatre which may or may not be the start of new recognition for The Portrait.