Reviews: The Portrait, Grand Theatre, Leeds

OPERA North’s previous offering, Carmen, was widely summed up as: ‘Great opera, shame about the production.’

The opposite could be said of this tale of a promising painter who abandons artistic integrity to earn fame and fortune by churning out flattering portraits of the rich.

Written as recently as 1980, this is the first UK production; you can see why.

Russian-based Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s adaptation of Gogol’s short story has neither drama nor human interest. It is little more than an introspective examination of the tension between artistic self respect and popular success, underpinned by jagged and discordant music.

Nevertheless, there is plenty to admire in David Pountney’s inventive production, which illustrates the universality of the artist’s dilemma by carrying us seamlessly from Gogol’s St Petersburg, through Stalinist Russia to the modern populism of Andy Warhol.

There are plenty of nice touches, from the nasty, larger-than-life historical figures who become the artist’s patrons, to the silent and baleful Muse who follows him around and is ultimately responsible for his suicide.

And the music is delivered with admirable clarity, with Paul Nilon outstanding in the demanding role of the artist, and the orchestra under Rossen Gergov making the best of an uninspiring score.

Philip Andrews


PREMIERED four years after the Weinberg opera above, Nixon in China, screened live from the New York Metropolitan at Sheffield Cineworld this Saturday, occupies a different sound world.

Written by the widely acclaimed American minimalist composer John Adams, it was his first opera in 1987 and although he has penned five since and the opera was not initially a success (but then, neither was Carmen), it is now generally regarded as his operatic masterpiece.

Like all his operas, it is based on an actual event, the groundbreaking, historical visit to China in 1972 by the then President of the United States, Richard Nixon.

Although the score, to an excellent libretto by Alice Goodman, is minimalist influenced, there are purely lyrical moments; Pat Nixon’s act two aria being particularly rewarding to listen to.

In the New York Met production the ‘First Lady’ is sung by a Brit, Janis Kelly (the soprano voice often heard in Morse episodes), while the part of Nixon is taken James Maddalena, the baritone who sang the role at the work’s premiere.

Also ‘seen singing’ are such well known political figures as Henry Kissinger, Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao, played by rapidly rising in fame Korean coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim.

Adams himself conducts the work, its first Met staging, and the director is Peter Sellars who also did the honours at its premiere in 1987.

Speaking of Bizet’s Carmen, as opposed to Daniel Kramer’s for Opera North, a 3D film made at two performances of a Royal Opera House production last year is due for general release in early March at Odeon cinemas.

Watch this space.

Bernard Lee