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Review Weinberg: The Portrait

An artist gives a life for his 15 minutes in this Opera North performance at the Grand Theatre

Review: Weinberg: The Portrait

It is impossible, yet, to tell for how long Keighley-born Paul Nilon’s operatic career will last. Such things remain the preserve of fortune’s fickle finger, but it is to be hoped that he will be blessed with a long and successful one. Yet, it is more than likely that he should eventually rank this portrayal of Chartkov, the talented but penniless artist in Mieczys?aw Weinberg’s The Portrait, as one of his finest achievements.

The painter gets lucky with the acquisition of a bewitched portrait, dropping first fortune and then fame into a grateful lap. From tortured pauper he is transformed into the toast of the powerful, the toady of the political elite. By accepting the commissions for portraits from some of history’s less-than-desirable despots – Gadafy, Stalin and military juntas much in evidence – he must nourish egos, humanise ogres and beautify the ugly in his pictures. As Stalin muses, the establishment have no need for genius, only an obedient servant. In due course, Chartkov loses his integrity, soul, mind and health.

Nilon’s highly memorable portrayal of the artist’s pill-strewn, guilt-ridden demise, caught for the audience in the glare of a journalistic close camera like any modern celebrity would command, is the emotional climax of the work.

As for the music, the Polish Weinberg was by training and instinct a Russian and a good friend of Shostakovich. Nilon has the measure of an increasingly desperate declamation and angular melodies of the vocal line. At close quarters throughout, he is ably supported by his servant, Richard Burkhard’s Nikita, and conductor Rossen Gergov – register the name for future reference – draws much impact from the unfamiliar music, Opera North’s orchestra responding to the dramatic nuances he finds in a remarkably approachable score.

Dan Potra’s costumes and set designs are visually stunning. The high-and-mighty, taller than everyone else, are resplendent in their ball-gowns and regalia. Chartkov’s studio changes from the vibrant kaleidoscopic colourings of a creative artist’s palette in Act I to the bleach-white void of the charlatan’s anaemic imagination by the close. By having Chartkov, in his celebrity, resemble Andy Warhol and leaving Damien Hirst’s bejewelled skull as our last spectacle, director David Pountney broadens the opera’s tale of moral sell-out to include the questionable sincerity of some notable modern exponents. History’s cultural patrons, from the papacy to princes to politicians have always set limits to the freedom of creative artists, but the present dichotomy is that the fewer the constraints, evident today, the more insipid the output.

With ON’s current Carmen such an artistic dead duck, The Portrait may turn out to an unexpected golden goose. It is a full decade since David Pountney tackled Shostakovich in this part of the world, and now his interest has turned to Gogol short-stories, let us have him prepare a production of The Nose for his next assignment.

The Portrait will be at the Grand on 10 and 12 February at 7.30pm

Posted on Monday 7th February 2011

Grand Theatre & Opera House

46 New Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6NZ

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