03 March 2011
Opera North did Mieczyslaw Weinberg proud in a lavish new production – a British premiere – of his 1980 opera, The Portrait.
It’s based on a short story by Gogol. A gifted but struggling young artist called Chartkov buys a painting in a junk shop with his last kopek. This portrait has magical power – money comes forth from it. Soon he forgets his idealism and becomes a flattering portraitist of the wealthy and powerful. Finally a visit to an exhibition by another, uncompromised, artist shatters his self-assurance.
Paul Nilon is magnificent as Chartkov, taking the character from young student to obsequious society artist to broken soul.
And there’s a key role for his side-kick, Nikita (Richard Burkhard), a peasant who eventually voices the thoughts of the common man (‘We are living a lie!’) – making the piece a parable of Soviet society.
David Pountney’s colourful production (design Dan Potra, lighting by Limus Fellborn) presented the first part of the story in Gogol’s terms, with a gallery of grotesques. When Chartkov was rich and famous, huge airbrushed portraits of Stalin reminded us of what ‘Socialist realism’ meant – artistic untruth. Finally it referenced today’s celebrity artists, as Chartkov became a white-maned Warhol lookalike.
Reviewer: Robert Beale